Decision Making in Aviation: Classical versus Naturalistic

Sometimes procedural errors, due to lack of currency, increased workload (due to adverse weather, equipment malfunction or enemy action) or poor judgement (due to situational uncertainty or potential imminent catastrophe), leads to ‘pilot error’ [1]. The pilot errs, conventionally, whenever the perceptual, judgemental and motor demands exceed (her)his momentary attention capacity. “Typically it occurs when an unexpected event requires a complicated, unplanned, quick sequence of actions…caused by any induced elevation of …workload beyond a pilot’s capacity” (Roscoe) [1]. We may blame it on the pilot, but is it the man behind the machine that has failed or is it that (her)his decision proves to be a costly and at times, a tragic, mistake? 

Piloting consists of three cognitive activities: procedural, decisional, and perceptual-motor [2]. The basic task of flying an aircraft is a perceptual-motor activity, based on established procedures, for mission accomplishment and safe piloting. Aviation training, therefore,  aims at enhancing the perceptual-motor skills of piloting, such that the pilot senses, recognizes, transforms and manipulates during the flight to ensure stability and precision of flight path control. This is aided by procedural compliance. In other words, training provides limited choices to be exercised by a trainee pilot. For example, training of combat pilots involves them to take actions as per pre-defined procedures. Say in an emergency, If it is an ‘act’ emergency – eject; or if it is a ‘react’ emergency, there ‘conditioned’ response is to check parameters and take appropriate corrective actions, if the aircraft responds, continue flight; or else, below a minima, say a defined altitude  or after a specified number of corrective actions, e.g. after a certain failed attempts to relight a flamed-out engine – abandon the aircraft. This training indeed is ‘recognition-primed decision’ making [3] – for every conceivable in-flight emergency or situation, there exists a standard operating procedure (SOP). Even in case of failed attempts at controlling the disabled aircraft, the SOP is but ‘eject, eject, eject’. This is true for most of the situations faced by military jet pilots. Commercial aviation training too is based on controlling the aircraft within the defined parameters as per the phase of the flight. This is adequately reinforced by simulator based training, including practicing conceivable emergencies where pilots are expected to provide standardised responses to the displayed parameters.

Decisions, however, are required to be taken whenever an uncertain situation arises, giving rise to an uncertainty of what has happened or is about to happen, where there may be no established procedure to follow [4]. The pilot, in such de novo situations, must act, as per (her)his assessment of situation and the likely choices that can be exercised. (S-)He then goes on to make the most appropriate decision with a desired outcome in mind. Such Decision Making, learnt or otherwise, determines the outcome of any situation, including in case of aircraft system failures, bad weather conditions, or Loss of Situational Awareness etc. [4].

There are two types of Decision Making: classical (normative) and naturalistic Decision Making.

Classical or normative Decision Making is learned by the pilots when they commence their flying training and it continues as they progress through their career, from one aircraft type to another. It is reinforced by ground training of aircraft systems and sub-systems and prior to flight by learning about the actions during various likely in-flight emergencies. Such training and resulting Decision Making has, by and large, proven its usefulness in aviation training.

Naturalistic Decision Making, on the other hand, utilises the schemata of prototypical situations (previously experienced in real or simulated conditions) and thus drawing on the long term memory [5], in turn yielding an almost spontaneous response to the identified/recognised situation. Such a pattern matching of Naturalistic Decision Making means that it is the decision maker’s expertise that plays the central role in recognising that a problem exists, shaping the process, and responding to the problem [6]. There are eight factors that characterise Naturalistic Decision Making. These are: “ill-structured problems; uncertain, dynamic environments; shifting, ill-defined, or competing goals; multiple event-feedback loops; time constraints; high stakes; multiple players; organizational norms and goals that must be balanced against the decision makers’ personal choice (with “quantity of information and level of expertise” suggested to be included) [7]. It must be clear that all the factors need not be present in a situation, instead if some or all are present, the Decision Making process can be considered to be naturalistic [7]. Say, in case of Loss of Situational Awareness, a situation likely to be faced by pilots, more commonly in single cockpit aircraft (but also reported in multi-crew environment), with their Naturalistic Decision Making coming to fore, mostly brings them back safe, yet many a time may result in a catastrophe.

Read the Second Part: Decision Making in Aviation – The Twain shall Meet


1. Roscoe RN. Cockpit workload, residual attention, and pilot error. Ch in Aviation Psychology. Roscoe SN (Editor). First edition, Ames: Iowa State University Press; 1980: 159-169
2.  Roscoe SN, Jensen RS, Gawron VJ. Introduction to training systems. Ch in Aviation Psychology. Roscoe SN (Editor). First edition, Ames: Iowa State University Press; 1980: 173-181
3.  Klein G. Naturalistic decision making. Human Factors 2008; 50(3): 456-460 4.  Roscoe SN. Concepts and definitions. Ch in Aviation Psychology. Roscoe SN (Editor). First edition, Ames: Iowa State University Press; 1980: 3-10
5.  Endsley MR. Toward a theory of situation awareness in dynamic systems. Human Factors 1995; 37(1): 32-64
6.  Orasanu J. Stress and naturalistic decision making: Strengthening the weak links. Chapter in Decision making under stress: Emerging themes and application. Flin R, Salas E, Strab M, Martin L (Editors). Aldershot:Ashgate, 1997: 43-66
7.  Cannon-Bowers JA, Salas E, Pruitt JS. Establishing the boundaries of a paradigm for decision-making research. Human Factors 1996; 38(2): 193-205

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