Naturalistic Decision Making : The Way We Gain Insights


The Naturalistic Decision Making community defines intuition as based on large numbers of patterns gained through experience, resulting in different forms of tacit knowledge. Naturalistic Decision Making (NDM) proposes that better decisions can be achieved by strengthening intuition through experience, which results in sharper perceptual skills and richer mental models.

The field of Naturalistic Decision Making was started in 1989 to understand how people make decisions in applied, as opposed to artificial laboratory settings (Klein & Hoffman, 2008). Naturalistic Decision Making researchers (e.g., Klein et al., 2010, Klein et al., 1993) discovered that decision makers in natural settings relied heavily on intuition; the researchers subsequently searched for ways to strengthen intuitive decision making (Klein, 2004).

LOCI’s methodology is designed to develop a person’s mental model for emergency response in order to facilitate better decision-making in novel circumstances. By providing highly contextual pre-incident learning, LOCI builds people’s tacit knowledge as a means to improve their novice-level intuition about how to react in an emergency.

What is meant by “intuition”? NDM views intuition as an expression of experience stored as patterns or prototypes that enable people to rapidly assess situations and make decisions without comparing options (Klein, 1998, Klein et al., 2010). This view of intuition fits with the Chase and Simon (1973), who claim that we need to acquire thousands of patterns in order to be expert (see also Shanteau, 2015). These patterns are not generic tools, however, they are specific accumulations of direct and vicarious experiences.

The NDM framework comes into play when decision makers are sufficiently experienced to rely on the patterns they have acquired. Of course, some decision makers will learn more from the same experiences than others. But experience is a primary indicator of a person’s capacity to handle challenging decision points with reasonable levels of success.

What counts as expertise? Naturalistic Decision Making researchers identify experts as having rich repertoires of patterns, being able to make fine discriminations that may be invisible to novices, having sophisticated mental models of how things work, and having resilience to adapt to complex and dynamic situations. 

Are intuitions valuable? Intuition can be thought of as insight that arises spontaneously without conscious reasoning. Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel prize in economics for his work on human judgment and decision-making, has proposed that we have two different thought systems: system 1 is fast and intuitive; system 2 is slower and relies on reasoning. Kahneman and Klein (2009) and Hogarth (2001) all assert that intuition can be trusted if it reflects experience in environments with reliable feedback.

Klein (2013) provides a formulation for improving performance, shown below. Performance improvements depend on both reducing errors and increasing insights and expertise. 

Gary Klien Naturalistic Decision Making

What is the source of Intuition? The judgments and decisions that we are most likely to call intuitive come to mind on their own, without explicit awareness of the evoking cues and happen without an explicit evaluation of the validity of these cues.

Intuitive judgments are produced by “System 1 operations” of the brain which are automatic, involuntary, and almost effortless. In contrast, the deliberate activities of System 2 are controlled, voluntary, and effortful—they impose demands on our limited attentional resources. System 2 is involved, for example, when you perform a calculation (17 x 14 = ?) or read a map.

The distinction between Systems 1 and 2 plays an important role in Naturalistic Decision Making approaches. Naturalistic Decision Making assumes that intuitive judgments and preferences have the characteristics of System 1 activity: They are automatic, arise effortlessly, and often come to mind without immediate justification. The class of intuition, however, arises from tacit knowledge of a situation. For example, the decisions involve both an automatic process that brings promising solutions to mind and a deliberate activity in which the execution of the solution is mentally simulated relying on situational awareness.

Naturalistic Decision Making: Situation Awareness

Situation Awareness and Naturalistic Decision Making

Situation awareness is a highly critical aspect of human decision making and consistent with work in the NDM branch of psychology. Research indicates that under emergency conditions experts make decisions using a holistic process involving situation recognition and pattern matching to memory structures to make rapid decisions (i.e., System 1) (Dreyfus, 1981; Klein, 1989, 1993; Klein, Calderwood, & Clinton-Cirocco, 1986). 

Within this framework, a person’s situation awareness, an internal conceptualization of their current circumstances, becomes the driving factor in their decision­-making process. For novices as well, who may use very different decision strategies, understanding a situation will often comprise the bulk of their effort. In most settings, effective decision-making largely depends on having a good understanding of the situation at hand.

Where experience doesn’t exist to rely on situation recognition and pattern matching – specifically for novices who need to effectively navigate an emergency situation – what tacit knowledge of the situation can be drawn upon?

Naturalistic Decision Making: Unpacking Mental Models

From the NDM perspective, mental models (tacit knowledge) are a person’s beliefs about causal relationships. People usually cannot articulate all, or even most of these beliefs, nor can they articulate how the different causal relationships interact. Yet these beliefs determine the mental simulations people make to see how different courses of action might play out. These beliefs determine whether an explanation for an event is judged to be plausible. Mental models help us understand events and anticipate possible future outcomes.

How can we study a person’s mental model? Klein and Hoffman (2008) suggest using Cognitive Task Analysis methods (Crandall et al., 2006, Hoffman and Militello, 2009), and directing the analysis at the kinds of relationships and concepts that a person has a mental model about. Thus, to examine spatial relationships we can ask the person to draw a map. To capture temporal relationships we could request that the person create a script. To capture organizational relationships the person could prepare a diagram of everyone in the organizational hierarchy. To get a picture of a person’s conceptual understanding we could use a concept map (Novak & Cañas, 2006).

Gary Klien (Seeing what others don’t., 2013) perceived the limitations of Cognitive Task Analysis as it lacked context, … focused too much on procedure which failed to uncover patterns. Problems in the real world can be considerably more complicated than the artificially constructed ones often presented in laboratory experiments.

This Is why during his research he began focused pattern matching, capturing how people created new mental models based on their previous life experiences – their intuition guided them to creating mental models. Highly experienced individuals tend to compare patterns when making decisions. They are able to recognize regularities, repetitions and similarities between the information available to them and their past experiences. They then imagine how a given situation might play out. This combination enables them to make relevant decisions quickly and competently.


Naturalistic Decision Making research places high value on the role of experience when relying on intuition as they study the actual contexts in decision making.

We know that LOCI can fast track novices tacit knowledge by drawing upon spatial experiences garnered through our safety templates that are designed to develop their pattern matching during emergency response in order to facilitate better decision-making in novel circumstances.

This is where LOCI and the Naturalistic Decision Making community align –  helping people gain experience more quickly and make sense of more complex situations by bringing to bear a richer and broader knowledge base and conceptual base for making intuitive judgments and decisions.

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