When thinking about how pilots make decisions, one of the first things we should look at is the environment within which these decisions are made.
Cramped and noisy, the flight deck can be a terrible place to work.
Like others who work in high-risk environments, pilots often have to make decisions within the context of very challenging conditions, each of which can shape and influence the decision being made.
These conditions can include:
- Limited time available to solve the problem.
- Dynamically changing conditions.
- Conflicting goals.
- Varying levels of information quality, reliability and ambiguity.
- Limited outside support.
- Limited human computational capability.
- Significant personal consequences for mistakes.
An understanding of the mental processes that pilots use to make real-world decisions can help us to understand the strengths and weaknesses of our thinking.
Don’t dismiss this stuff as purely academic.
It’s easy enough to understand and can help you see the holes in your own decision-making.
Let’s dig in…
When faced with an abnormal event, pilots tend to employ two distinct decision-making processes.
The first process is known as Situation Assessment:
This is the ideal process and when done correctly, includes:
- Defining the problem.
- Assessing the risk that the problem introduces to the operation.
- Assessing the time available to solve the problem.
However, as you may have guessed, this is rarely done in a well thought out, complete fashion which means that things get missed.
This is likely due to the fact that most pilots have never learned a standardised way of achieving these goals, something we’ll address throughout the course.
The truth of the matter is that when assessing a situation, most pilots tend to rely on Situational Recognition techniques rather than the above mentioned Situational Assessment process.
Situational Recognition simply means that a possible solution is retrieved from memory, quickly evaluated, and applied if it is believed to solve the problem.
So if something has worked before, it’s likely that a pilot will try it again.
While this allows for a workable solution to be retrieved quickly, it does come with its own set of drawbacks, such as:
- Because the first plausible pattern is usually chosen, all options are not usually considered.
- Without the consideration of all options, all options cannot be evaluated. This means that better solutions may be missed.
- Less experienced pilots may not have adequate or relevant situational patterns to draw upon.
Options found through situational recognition processes tend to involve the decision-making strategy known as satisficing.
Satisficing refers to the choosing of an option that:
- Is more adequate than perfect.
- Is often the minimum satisfactory outcome.
While pattern recognition and satisfying techniques do not always produce the most well-explored decisions, they often strike a good balance between the limited computational capacity of the human brain, and the time available to come up with a solution.
Keep in mind that an aircraft is always moving.
Stopping to think is a luxury that pilots do not always have, especially when things are going wrong.
Once the situation has been assessed, the pilot must choose a Course of Action (COA).
In this second step of the process, pilots invariably use one of two decision options to help them choose the appropriate course of action (COA).
These decision options are:
Let’s take a look at each.