You can't pay MORE attention: the myth of 'loss of situation awareness'

- english decision making gareth lock non-technical skills situation awareness Jan 26, 2022
How do you know you've lost Situation Awareness?
In the moment, you don’t. And therein lies the problem! Situation awareness is your ability to make sense of perceived data and then look (guess) into the future what is most likely to happen. If we don’t understand the information, how would I know what the future looks like?
Loss of situation awareness in yourself can really only be determined AFTER the event and the images in this blog show why this is the case. We perceive data through our senses and generate an understanding based on previous experiences. What we are focusing our attention on to generate that understanding is determined and influenced by what we believe to be important and/or relevant.
  • An experienced diver might look to see what is happening with the corals and ‘plant life’ as they approach the edge of a reef to determine if there is a down-current because they have experienced this in the past. A novice wouldn’t know to look for these signs and doesn’t have the experience to know what to do next.
  • An experienced diver might glance backwards as they progress through a wreck to see if the bubbles are causing percolation (rust to fall) which would limit their options to exit the wreck. A novice may not realise that percolation happens because the wrecks that they have entered don’t have any rusticles in the ceiling because they are heavily dived.
  • A technical instructor should recognise that their student hasn’t turned their right post back on during a shutdown drill as the student goes to shutdown the right post (at 50m). Their experienced guide does and prepares for an out of gas situation by swapping to their backup reg and deploying the long hose. The real OOG did happen when the student shut down the left post! The instructor was too busy undertaking the failure drill with a bubble gun to notice the student hadn’t re-opened the right post.
In each case, both novice and experienced diver are sensing information from the scene. They are applying their experience and guessing what the future will look like. They have their own level of situation awareness. The more experienced diver has a more accurate model of the future because of the training, experience and skills. This is the top line.
However, someone after the fact and with full knowledge of the outcome is able to notice what things should have been seen to have prevented the adverse outcome. This is the bottom line. This is their assessment of what the person was paying attention to in reference to ‘good’ i.e. the event wouldn't have happened if they had been paying more attention.
The difference between these two lines can be called ‘loss of situation awareness’ and why it is not a very useful term when it comes to learning.
Reasons why SA can be lost (but don't help you in real time!)
  • Fixation on a single task to exclusion of everything else?
  • Lack of required information
  • Reaching mental capacity
  • Disagreement between two sources of information
  • Confusion or uncertainty
  • Failure to comply with accepted practices
  • Failure to communicate effectively
If the purpose is to learn from an event, we have to stay away from the construct of 'loss of situation awareness'. Rather, we have to focus (pun intended) on what was drawing the diver or instructor attention away from the threat/problem/issue that they should have been focusing on.
  • What else was distracting them? Fish, problem, artefact, buddy...
  • Had they experienced this situation below? If we don't know what to look for, we are unlikely to find it!
  • Was there an effective brief so that attention can be pointed in a more useful direction? Briefs help set divers/students/team members up for success

We have a limited capacity to pay attention to what is going on around us. Let's make sure that it is pointing in the most effective direction!

This diagram comes from an excellent book called ‘The Field Guide to Understanding Human Error’ which is a pretty simple read with some excellent insights.


Gareth Lock is the owner of The Human Diver, a training and coaching company focused on educating and developing divers, instructors and related teams to be high-performing. If you'd like to deepen your diving experience, consider taking the online introduction course which will change your attitude towards diving because safety is your perception, visit the website.