The vital difference between classical or normative Decision Making and Naturalistic Decision Making is that whereas the former prescribes the correct way to make a decision, the latter describes the process of Decision Making, without prescribing a way to make the decision . The process of normative (classical) Decision Making conventionally focuses on criteria and procedures for evaluating the multiple decision options, as compared from naturalistic approach where the emphasis is on classifying the situation, which is based on the process of situation recognition and pattern matching, for rapid decision making to memory structures .
Elaborating further on the difference between the two types, traditional Decision Making is primarily based on laboratory based Decision Making research, where there is an assumption of normative model of multiple alternatives, which in turn is evaluated as per some pre-defined criterion . “The classic decision theory was a normative theory developed by economists and mathematicians. The emphasis of not on what decision makers actually do, but what they should do. Later, mathematical modeling of subjective probability and utility was promoted to aid decision makers to achieve logical consistency. To describe the actual behaviour of practical decision making, this theory was followed by the psychological decision theory with the concepts of biases and heuristics. This theory seeks to explain human behaviour in terms of deviation from rational behaviour or, in other words, by an error concept” (Rasmussen) .
In comparison, Naturalistic Decision Making is based on, “…description of the actual behaviour from analysis of behaviour/performance in complex work environments with little emphasis on the identification of errors or biases with reference to normative models” . In other words, “research on Naturalistic Decision Making seeks to develop descriptive models of how people – usually experts (trained pilots, in the present context) – make decisions about the dynamic, unstructured problems encountered in real-world settings” . Therefore, Naturalistic Decision Making is “…how people use the experience to make decisions in field setting” .
Although in aviation setting, it is expected that pilots must be competent to make timely, appropriate and effective decisions…yet Decision Making training is unstructured and haphazard, with the quality and quantity of training varying with characteristics of the individual flight instructor or flying organisation .
There is, therefore, a need “…to build a learning environment that is capable of increasing the wealth of experience held by decision makers (and therefore their ability to manage in novel situations), that any patterns presented to them within a simulated environment must be properly contextualise and phased and must not,… be reduced and presented out of context as separate, individual or abstract” (Crego et al) . Therefore it is advocated that to cope with the uncertain situations of, say, flying in bad weather or facing an unexpected technical failure, there is necessity to develop recognition primed Naturalistic Decision Making. This is in addition to already learned analytical (classical) Decision Making. Further the need is for simulating the complete mission rather than isolated failures to help add to the pilots ‘experience file’ (sic), which in turn helps them to draw upon such ‘file’ to react correctly .
Hence, whereas analytical or classical Decision Making is subconsciously learned during flying training, and continues through the conventional means of conversion training from one aircraft type to another; there is a necessity to develop recognition primed Naturalistic Decision Making to cope with the uncertain situations. This is to enable the pilots to be able to switch back and forth between immediate Decision Making (Naturalistic) and functional conscious processing Decision Making (classical/normative) as per the situation. This is a sort of “cognitively parallel approach in Decision Making”  to ensure safe piloting under all circumstances, for safer skies for all.
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Acknowledgement: Image courtesy www.commons.wikimedia.org (Pelecanus Occidentalis (Brown Pelican) over Misson Bay, San Francisco by Britta from Fremont/San Jose Area, CA (Decision point).