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Unexpected information can be a barrier to situational awareness

predictingOne of the foundations of situational awareness development is being able to make accurate predictions of future events. Making (accurate) predictions is a fairly complex neurological process that relies heavily on gathering information, comprehending the meaning of the information, tapping into your stored knowledge of past experiences, trusting your intuition and using your imagination to run mental models to anticipate outcomes.

When faced with familiar situations, this process works relatively smoothly and quickly. In fact, most of the time you are predicting future outcomes using this process and you’re not even consciously aware of what you’re doing to get to the prediction… and that’s ok. In fact, if you had to think about it, consciously, it might slow the whole process down to a snail’s pace.

But what happens when your predictions are violated and unexpected things happen? The short answer is, you may become confused and you may even get frustrated. And your situational awareness may erode as a result. Let’s explore the impact of unexpected information.

Forming Expectations

The process of forming expectations begins with gathering information (facts and data) about what is happening in the environment around you. You do this by using your senses to capture inputs (seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling and tasting). The data gathered through sensory inputs then travels through nerves to sensory processors in your brain. Think of the processors as interpreters that are receiving nerve impulses (sort of like Morse code). These bits and bytes of information are pieced together so you can see and hear (and feel, taste and smell) the things around you.

Then, the brain does some heavy lifting in the form of sensory integration which is a fancy way of saying it takes the pieces of information gathered from each of the senses and combines them into one coherent understanding of what is happening. While this may sound easy, it is fraught with complications that can flaw situational awareness (a topic I’ve discussed in other articles). For example, sometimes you see things that are in conflict with what you hear. When this happens, the mental “puzzle pieces” don’t fit together so well.

Once your brain has what it believes to be an understanding of the current situation, it heads off into long term memory to locate past experiences to compare the current situation to. The brain wants to know: Have I seen or experienced this before? Were my previous experiences positive or negative? What did I learn from the previous experiences that I may be able to apply to this situation? Are there any threats or dangers in the current situation that I need to focus my attention on?

Since the brain stores information visually, the process of searching through long- term memory involves trying to locate pattern matches – the clues and cues in the current situation that match previous experiences. If a match is found, you may benefit from intuition (the feeling of knowing without knowing why or how you know).

Armed with current clues and cues, fueled by past experiences, your brain then begins to run mental models (think of these models as little movies that play in your head that look into the future to see, or anticipate, outcomes). This forms expectations.

The Unexpected

anger1As you form expectations about future outcomes (based on current information, coupled with past experiences) you begin to see a clear picture in your mind about what should be happening and what should happen next. At this point, you are using your imagination to make predictions – to look into the future. These expectations of future outcomes form benchmarks and can assist in goal setting.

Sometimes, however, your expectations are violated. In other words, your beautifully constructed mental model of outcomes is flawed. When this happens, the brain can become overwhelmed with confusion. It can also lead to anger and frustration because your brain doesn’t like to be wrong. In your early evolutionary history, being wrong with expectations about outcomes usually resulted in being eaten by a predator.

Consequence of the Unexpected

When the brain becomes confused as a result of an unexpected outcome, it must quickly revert back to the start of the process of forming situational awareness. Thus, you will begin capturing information using sensory inputs, sending them down the neural pathways toward destinations toward comprehension, tapping into past experiences and using your imagination to anticipate future outcomes.

While the process is the same as the initial formation of situational awareness, it is made more complex by the confusion of unexpected outcomes. For example, imagine you are putting together a jigsaw puzzle (which is, ironically, the exact analogy I use during the Mental Management of Emergencies program to explain the formation of situational awareness).

At the beginning, you have nothing but a pile of pieces. Typically, you search out a few facts that begin your process of understanding (Think: Size-up). In the puzzle building analogy, those “facts” are the four corner pieces. At the beginning of the puzzle building process, these are the only pieces that you can say, with certainty, you know where they go (assuming the puzzle has four corners to begin with).

As you piece the puzzle together, it starts to become clear what the puzzle theme is (e.g., a meadow with trees and flowers in the foreground and a beautiful mountain in the background). You’re starting to figure it out.

round pegThen, unexpectedly, you encounter a puzzle piece that looks like an old manual typewriter. You’re initial thought may be “Someone accidently put this puzzle piece in the wrong box”. This “denial” of the piece can happen in real-life when unexpected information suddenly appears. It may be dismissed as coincidence or as an anomaly. It is quite easy for the brain to do this, especially when you are operating under stress and time compression because there simply isn’t enough time to figure it out. So the brain dismisses (or filters out) the unexpected information.

The brain can also become confused as a result of unexpected information. This confusion slows down the process of capturing and processing the meaning of incoming information. In other words, your ability to make sense of current clues and cues may be impacted because some of your brain’s “thinking power” is being consumed with trying to bring order to the confusion.

Chief Gasaway’s Advice

AdviceYou may encounter unexpected information at any time. In the teachings of mindfulness, decision makers are taught to “expect the unexpected.” This seems to be a circular phrase and an impossible task. For if you expect the unexpected, then arguably, it’s no longer unexpected, right?

To expect the unexpected is to maintain a level of vigilance and acceptance to the fact that, at any given time, we are operating in an environment with limited information. Additionally, if the environment is dynamically changing, so is the information. Expecting surprises and unexpected outcomes is a mindset that can be an asset. It can reduce surprises and frustration.

As noted, when the unexpected occurs, it can be confusing. And while confusion would seem like something you would want to avoid while operating in environments of stress and consequence, it can actually be an asset so long as you realize confusion is a sign of violated expectations – something unexpected is happening.

When confused, adopt an inquisitive disposition and seek to understand why you are confused. What is happening that violates your expectations? Why is it happening? What does it mean? How does the new information change understanding? What are your new predictions of future events in light of this new information?

Action Items

  1. Situational Awareness Matters!Discuss a time when you encountered unexpected information and the impact it had on your situational awareness.
  2. Share some examples of the potential consequences unexpected information can have on decision making.
  3. Discuss how confusion, frustration and anger (resulting from unexpected information) can impact your focus.
  4. Discuss strategies for how to reduce the impact of unexpected information.


The mission of Situational Awareness Matters is simple: Help first responders see the bad things coming… in time to change the outcome.

Safety begins with SA!

Share your comments on this article in the “Leave a Reply” box below. If you want to send me incident pictures, videos or have an idea you’d like me to research and write about, contact me. I really enjoy getting feedback and supportive messages from fellow first responders. It gives me the energy to work harder for you.




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