How to Develop Situational Awareness
Situational awareness is one of those buzz terms that became popularized in the movie, Bourne Identity starring Matt Damon. Appearing to possess almost supernatural abilities, Damon’s character, Jason Bourne, seemed to have a sixth sense that allowed him to anticipate the actions of others.
Here’s a scene from the film as an example:
Situational Awareness Real?
So you’re probably wondering – what’s the deal? Is situational awareness a real thing or is it some nonsense thought up by Hollywood writers.
The honest answer is – yes – situational awareness is very real. It’s also a guy skill that you can possess, similar to what you saw in the Bourne Identity movies.
There is one catch.
You have to be willing to open your mind and train it to think in new and different ways.
In this article, I’m going to:
- Teach you how to develop you’re very own situational awareness skills.
- Introduce you to three psychological constructs linked to situational awareness.
- Provide exercises to develop and strengthen your skills.
- Reveal common myths associated with situational awareness.
- Offer resources for the future.
Before exploring specifics on skill development, it’s important to offer a working definition of what situational awareness is. More importantly, I’ll also explain what situational awareness is not.
Let’s jump right in!
Situational Awareness Definition
Situational Awareness (SA) is an individual’s perception of what’s going on around them involving the constructs of time and space.
- Time: how a person experiences time in the moment.
- Space: motions, sounds and behavior of objects within the immediate environment.
Examples of situational awareness:
- Sensing someone wants to hit you before they raise a hand.
- Being aware of someone following you.
- Quickly identifying things that others don’t notice (i.e. a weapon).
What Situational Awareness is Not
If you were hoping SA was a supernatural power that allowed you to read minds, I’m sorry to disappoint. But the good news is that SA does offer you greater control over your environment.
As a counselor and educator, I’ve spent years working with people in the military and private sector to help them enhance their personal SA skills.
What I am going to teach you is what I’ve taught folks I’ve coached. The only difference is that you’ll be reading this material instead of our working with me in a face to face setting.
Psychology of Situational Awareness
In order to develop your personal SA skills, it’s important to know about three psychological principles:
- Cognitive Distortions
- Mindfulness Based Living
Let’s take a quick look at all three because you’ll need to know about them as we continue along the way. Ive provided an example for each term to help with comprehension.
While it may sound like a fancy term, cognitions are really nothing more than the process of understanding through thinking, synthesizing and experiencing.
Example: While sitting in your living room, you hear the bark of a dog in the distance. As you focus your attention on the barking, you realize the tone and pitch are familiar. By synthesizing the information taken in from your environment, instinctively you know:
- The dog’s bark does not indicate danger
- That it’s 6pm, without having to look at your watch
- Your neighbor is pulling into his driveway
- The “bark” is an indication of excitement
- The dog’s barking will cease in 30 seconds.
Cognitions allow us to absorb material from our surroundings and then draw conclusions based on what we are experiencing. If our mind is clear and free, the process of synthesis becomes easier.
In the case of the barking dog, you were able to identify the source of the noise, establish why you were hearing it and anticipate when the barking would cease.
Here, you have used cognitions for everything described above, reinforced through observation and the identification of patternistic behaviors.
2. Cognitive Distortions
Related to cognitions are cognitive distortions. In a nutshell, cognitive distortions can be anything that bends, skews or distorts the way you think about something and interpret its meaning.
This construct is generally tied to mood, however, in the case of SA, there’s a slight twist.
Example: One morning at work, your boss comes up to you and issues a reprimand for using the company’s Internet for personal use. As a result, you feel guilty and ashamed.
When you leave work that night and swipe out, the security guard glances at you for a brief moment. For some reason, you think:
- The guard knows you got into trouble for breaking company policy.
- This same guard believes you are a dishonest person.
- Others likely know about the reprimand as well.
Because of events earlier that morning with your boss, you’ve assigned meaning to other people’s intent. The conclusions you’ve drawn may or may not be accurate.
In the case of the security guard, it’s possible he had knowledge that you’d been written up. But logic suggests that’s very unlikely. The more plausible scenario is that he looked at you because that’s his job – after all, he is supposed to check out anyone entering or exiting the building.
But because you are holding feelings of shame and guilt, you are unintentionally distorting reality by jumping to conclusions.
3. Mindfulness Based Living
Mindfulness based living is an offshoot of the larger psychological construct, mindfulness. In plain-speak, mindfulness is a state of being where a person brings to bear all 5 senses to the here and now – meaning this very moment in time.
Mindfulness also allows for a cognitive behavioral style of thinking known as Acceptance and Commitment (ACT for short).
When you adopt the ACT approach, you acknowledge that random thoughts will float into and out of your consciousness. You also accept these thoughts for what they are and don’t try to stop them.
We know from a host of scientific studies that “thought stopping” doesn’t work. In fact, it can make intrusive thoughts worse. That’s why it’s better to acknowledge and accept random streams of consciousness as they happen and naturally let them pass.
I recognize the material being outlined here is deep. But if enhancing situational awareness is your endgame, it’s important material to cover.
When you combine the elements described under this area, you end up with Mindfulness Based Living.
Example: You wake up in the morning and intentionally empty your mind of all thoughts (i.e. the list of deliverables for the day). Once your mind is clear, you focus your awareness on the present moment. Using all five of your senses, you:
- Realize your automatic coffee maker has finished the brew cycle.
- Smell the fresh aroma of coffee beans.
- Experience the sensation of cool sheets against your skin.
- Hear this distant call of a seagull, above the sound of traffic.
- Notice that it’s sunny outside with a slight overcast.
- See a tiny crack on the ceiling.
Mindfulness based living allowed you to experience all that was described above. That’s because you were totally focused in the moment. In many ways, being in a state of mindfulness is similar to self-hypnosis.
The operative keywords here are mindfulness based living. This means rather than simply being aware of your environment, you are living in it – with all five senses.
Developing Your Situational Awareness Triad (SAT)
Based on what you read above, it becomes clear that in order to develop and enhance your own situational awareness, a focus needs to be placed on the previously mentioned triad of skills.
And that’s what we’re talking about folks – a triarchic approach. All three are necessarily if you are to operate a level similar to what you saw in the Jason Bourne movies.
What follows are skill building exercises for each area of the triad. You’ll notice that I’ve put more “meat” into the mindfulness because ultimately, that’s what SA is all about.
Cognitive Development Skill Building
Without cognitive skills, the ability to use SA mute. And while you may already be a good “thinker”, it’s important to bone up in this area to achieve maximum results.
Generally speaking, there are 8 empirically known ways to increase cognitive skills. These include:
- Physical activity
- Social connectives
- Brain training games (i.e. puzzles)
- Ample sleep and rest
- Reduction of stress
- Open mindedness
There’s no need for me to walkthrough all of these areas because most are self-explanatory. But I will say that brain training games, physical activity and creative skills are key.
Here is why:
Brain training games allow you increase cognitive skills by stimulating the prefrontal cortex and temporal lobe; two areas that are responsible for critical thinking. Puzzles, word association and memorization games are excellent options. Chess and checkers are also good choices.
If you are looking for a kind of all in one resource to build and increase your critical thinking skills, there’s a great workbook available from Amazon entitled: Brain Games.
When you are physically active, you are necessarily taking in stimuli from your environment. We’re talking about sensations like touch, sound, sight, smell and to a lesser degree, taste.
One doesn’t need to go to the gym to become physically active. You can do things at home that help you become more attuned to your body and environment. Plyometric movements are a great starting point.
If you are already physically active, great. But if you are lacking in this area, I encourage you to read the 7 secrets of people who regularly embrace exercise.
In a nutshell, creative skills allow you to apply abstract thinking to the non-abstract. Examples: Painting something on a canvas you see in your mind’s eye. Building a piece of furniture from scratch. Writing a short story, blog post or article.
Here the thing about creative skills – they pull from your brain’s Inferior Frontal Gyrus: an area that synthesizes material it receives through experiential learning. That’s a mouthful but as you now see, all of these things are connected.
Reducing Cognitive Distortions Activities
All of us experience cognitive distortions. It is part of what makes us human. This bending of reality happens when we are stressed, experience a depressed mood or when we are anxious.
Some have theorized cognitive distortions are a primal psychological defense mechanism. Others have suggested they are a symptom of mood, regulated by hormonal changes in the brain. In the final analysis, it kind of doesn’t matter.
What does matter, however, is your ability to recognize when cognitive distortions are taking place. Otherwise, your ability to truly practice situational awareness becomes limited.
The best way to minimize cognitive distortions is to challenge irrational thoughts. This means questioning a perception based on the facts.
Example: Imagine you’re hunting in the winter woods. Somehow, you’ve become separated from your friends. It’s 20 below zero. You’re hungry, thirsty and tired. Operating on survival mode, you begin searching for shelter.
In the distance, you see what looks like a cabin. Your mind starts to fill in the blanks, made up of assumptions based on magical thinking.
Suddenly, you become excited, believing that:
- The cabin is abandoned
- There’s food in the cabin
- Firewood is already chopped and ready to be lit
The problem here is that we haven’t established that a cabin actually exists. But because of your emotional state, which is largely anxious and frightened, your mind begins to bend (distort) reality.
In order to combat cognitive distortions, it’s important to mentally “push back” and challenge thoughts and assess if they are grounded in fact or based on the emotions of the moment.
To help you better accomplish this goal, I’m going to include a video below that walks you through the nuts and bolts of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT).
But if you followed the series and character, you know that he often engaged in quiet time to help strengthen his ability to think logically.
One of my favorite books that’s all about challenging irrational thoughts is: Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by Dr. David Burns.
What’s great about this read are the practical exercises inside, designed to help you break irrational patterns of thinking; distorted cognitions that can act as blockades to greater SA.
This brings us to our next and final point, Mindfulness Based Living.
Mindfulness Based Living
To live mindfully, one must live in the here and now. That may sound cliché but it also happens to be true.
But what does it really mean to be in the here and now? Well, in a nutshell “here and now” living requires that you clear your mind of extraneous material become one with your environment.
There’s no real way in this single article for me to teach everything you need to know about mindfulness based living (MBL). But what I can do is give you a mindfulness based exercise designed to help you enhance situational awareness. Think of this as a starting point.
Mindful Morning Exercise
If you’re like most people, you likely wake up in the morning with a brain full of races with thoughts. It can be a non-stop tickertape of: What’s on the agenda today? Who do I need to contact? Where do I need to be?
People who have enhanced situational awareness, however, start their day much differently.
Before they open their eyes, they are aware of what’s happening in their immediate environment – similar to what I spoke about earlier in the mindfulness based living section.
You too can start doing this, simply by practicing and regularizing this morning exercise. I’ll walk you through the “How To” aspects below:
1) When you first start to awaken, intentionally clear your mind of racing thoughts. One easy way to do this is to ask yourself: What am I aware of?
2) Using your five tactile senses, begin to identify what’s going on in your immediate environment. Questions to reflect upon:
- Do you feel the cool sheets touching your skin?
- Do you hear the sound of birds in the distance?
- Do you smell coffee brewing?
- Do you taste anything?
- Do you have the urge to go to the bathroom?
- Do you see sunlight coming through the window?
Notice that by focusing your attention on what is happening in your immediate environment, the previously mentioned racing thoughts have paused.
I won’t belabor the point here except to suggest that one of the best ways to live more mindfully is engross yourself in MBL concepts. Meditation, creative visualization and self-hypnosis are major components of the MBL schema.
One resource to consider is Mindfulness for Dummies. The learning concepts and exercises included are straight forward and simple with a little Buddha stirred into the mix.
Situational Awareness in Practice
Once you become comfortable with the previously mentioned skills, you’ll be able to apply what you’ve learned as part of SA. You will be bringing to bear all of your cognitive skills here, cleared of distortions and mindful of the moment.
Step 1: Establish a Baseline
In psychology, a baseline is nothing more than a starting point. Baselines entail what one would expect in a given environment. Here are some examples:
- At a baseball game, you would expect cheering crowds, people getting up and down from their seats and vendors going up and down the rows to sell food.
- At a library, you would expect to find a quiet environment with people reading books and occasionally speaking is soft whispers.
- Flying on a commercial jet, you would expect to hear the whining engines and feel occasional turbulence.
When we establish baselines, we effectively ask ourselves, What am I aware of? Using all of your senses, what would one expect to find in a given situation.
Without baselines, we can’t spot oddities, meaning divergent objects, places or things. Retired Navy SEAL Clint Emerson explores this concept in his book: 100 Deadly Skills where he teaches readers how to quickly identify the non-normal, using some of the mindful concepts we explored earlier.
Establishing baselines happens through the art of questioning. This requires curiosity with emotional distance. If you have ever worked with a medical doctor, therapist or other healthcare provider, you’ve probably noticed they give off a “detached vibe”.
Do so allows them to assess the situation through a clinical lens, which is similar to how you might go about establishing a baseline.
Questions to Establish a Baseline:
- What am I aware of in this environment?
- What behaviors seem “normal” that I’m observing?
- Are there any patterns?
- What seems out of place?
Example Baseline Scenario
Assume you are in Chicago on a warm summer weekday morning. In search of a cup of joe, you spot a café on a busy downtown street. You decide to go for it walk in.
As the door closes behind you, it becomes immediately obvious that the air conditioning is on; a reprieve from the 85 degree temps outside.
Taking it all in, you notice most of the tables are full. People are talking in with low voices and almost everyone is wearing light clothing.
Using the baseline questions above, here’s how you quickly identify what’s abnormal.
Q: What am I aware of in this café?
A: People are ordering beverages while others are seated. Customers are drinking coffee or chatting with someone. The place looks crowded, which is what one would expect in a Chicago café during a weekday morning.
Q: What behaviors seem normal that I’m observing?
A: Drink ordering by café patrons. People reading or talking quietly. Almost everyone is dressed is dressed in light garb because it’s a warm day.
Q: What patterns do I see?
A: Most of the seated customers are using a shared table, meaning they may or may not know the person sitting across from them. Again, not uncommon in a café.
Q: What seems out of place?
There’s a man seated alone at a corner table. He’s wearing a green bomber jacket over a t-shirt. He doesn’t seem to be reading anything in particular but instead, shifting his attention around the café with darting eyes.
Analysis through Synthesis
Upon reflection, the anomaly in the café is the man seated alone at a corner table.
Not only does he fall outside of the patterns mentioned above, he’s also wearing a jacket; something highly unusual for summer. And his shifty behavior also seems different than the laid back ebb and flow of the other customers.
Does he present a threat to you or others in the café? It’s really hard to know at this point. But what you do know is he’s on your radar, which places you in a much better position to respond to whatever he may or may not do.
given the information you have in the moment however, the man at the corner table is on your radar now, isn’t he? This places you in a much better position to respond, whatever he may or may not do.
There are other ways to assess the environment that involve interpreting intent and deception through body language. While impossible to share all of the behavioral markers here, there are a few to be aware of:
Hand Wringing, Shifty Hands and Clinched Fists
People who are nervous or anxious will often engage in hand wringing. It’s a subconscious way of reacting to stress and can be done with one hand or both.
People who are trying to conceal often have shifty hands. This is why law enforcement officials say things like: Show me your hands when then are suspicious of someone.
They know there’s a high probability that someone looking to do harm may be concealing something (i.e. a gun, knife or other weapon) in one of their hands.
An instinctual response to anger is the clinching of fists. Whenever a person has a fist balled up (one or both) it’s a strong indicator they are in an agitated state.
If you are interested in learning more about this topic, I encourage you to get a copy of The Definitive Book of Body Language, available on Amazon.
Turning Critical Thinking into Actions
Using the café example previously described, let’s go one step further and ratchet up the danger factor. Now that you are keenly aware of the man in the corner, you begin to focus your attention on his actions.
Upon closer observation, you see that he has one hand covering a pointy object, resting on the table. While hard to tell, it looks like it could be a gun. But you can’t really be sure. So what should you do?
There are really only a couple of choices here:
- Confront the man and ask him what’s under his hand
- Alert a café employee about your suspicions
- Leave the cafe because it doesn’t feel safe
Unless you are in law enforcement, the only real choice is to leave the café. We know from self-defense research that the best way to survive a threatening situation is to avoid confrontation in the first place.
Think about it.
If you confront the man, you run the risk of being shot. If you try to discretely alert a barista, you’re extending your time in a potentially dangerous situation.
By exiting the café (and hopefully calling 911), you preserve a number of options; namely your life. In real life, people don’t get all “Jason Bourne” unless they have to.
Primal Skills: Inner Voice
One topic that is not often talked about when developing SA is our inner voice. Some people refer to this as our “Spidey Sense” or a “Sixth Sense”. While these terms may seem comical if not silly, your inner voice is very real.
All animals, including humans, have a primal instinct. Think of this as nature’s survival “chip”; a kind of warning system that informs us of a threatening situation.
Some mammals are more attuned to this instinct than others. For example, it is a scientific fact that some dogs are able to sense an earthquake before it strikes.
Don’t believe me?
Check out this video of a dog using his own primal instinct to escape danger ten full seconds before the ground starts shaking.
And so my point here is if you want to truly develop situational awareness, it’s important to lean into your inner voice. As a species, we are fairly good at intuiting what’s going on around us.
But because we live in a modern world, filled with electronic distractions and noises, we’ve grown accustomed to allowing technology to intuit for us.
Build Skills Through Practice
If you want to enhance your own empathic abilities, which is really a form of mindfulness, it is critical that you practice all of the skills mentioned here.
At some point, all of that practice will transform into a way of living. In other words, you won’t have to “think” about establishing a baseline. Instead, it will become part of your psychological schema.
Myths About Situational Awareness
Just for fun, I thought it would be interesting to list several common myths connected to situational awareness. Most are based on Hollywood stereotypes:
- Only military people have situational awareness
- Law enforcement people should only use SA
- Men are better at establishing baselines than women
- Situational awareness is nothing more than being “aware”
Books on Situational Awareness
There two books available on Amazon that I’d like to recommend. One is called Left of Bang and the other is Spy Secrets that Can Save Your Life. Both are excellent resources to consult as part of your own situational awareness development.
I’ll end by asking you: What are you aware of in your environment right now?
I hope you have found the material shared here useful.
Abnormal Psychology. Ronald Comer of Princeton University. Worth Publishing.
Effect of thought-stopping on thoughts, mood and corrugator EMG in depressed patients. Teasdale and Rezin. University of Oxford Department of Psychiatry. 1977.
Toward a Social Psychology of Place: Predicting Behavior from Place-Based Cognitions, Attitude, and Identity (Sage)
15 Cognitive Distortions: Psych Central
Towards a Theory of Situational Awareness. Clinical and technical in nature, this peer reviewed article appearing in Human Factors does a great job of providing definition and meaning to all that we’ve been talking about.