Situation Awareness is Adaptive, Externally-directed Consciousness


Smith, K., & Hancock, P.A. (1995). Situation awareness is adaptive, externally-directed consciousness. Human Factors, 37(1), 137-148.

We define situation awareness (SA) as adaptive, externally directed consciousness. This definition dispels the artificial and contentious division evident in the literature, according to which SA is either exclusively knowledge or exclusively process. This misdirected rivalry has more to do with general perspectives on the study of human behavior than with SA itself. Through defining SA as an aspect of consciousness, we hope to clarify two key issues. (1) The source of goals with respect to SA is a normative arbiter in the task environment; that is, the behavior that SA generates must be directed at an external goal. (2) SA is the invariant at the core of the agent’s perception-action cycle that supports skilled performance; that is, relationships among factors or dimensions in the environment determine what the agent must know and do to achieve the goals specified by the external arbiter. We introduce a construct we call the risk space to represent the invariant relations in the environment that enable the agent to adapt to novel situations and to attain prespecified goals. We articulate this concept of a risk space through use of a specific example in commercial aircraft operations. The risk space structures information about the physical airspace in a manner that captures the momentary knowledge that drives action and that satisfies the goals and performance criteria for safe and efficient flight. We note that the risk space may be generalized to many different means of navigation.

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