Situational Awareness Training and Evaluating Human Behavior

On 23 September 2013, a 30-year-old man named Nikhom Thephakaysone was riding on a crowded commuter train in San Francisco. Surveillance video recorded the man drawing a large-frame pistol from his waistband or jacket pocket several times. He pointed the weapon across the aisle of the train directly at the man he would later shoot after exiting that train. At one point he even wiped his nose with his weapon hand while holding the pistol. Dozens of people were in that train car, many in close proximity to the shooter. No one saw him with the gun and as a result, a random innocent person is dead.

Situational Awareness Training

The young lady on the left might notice the anomaly in this picture if she were paying attention. Most people are looking down the bowling alley’s lanes. The young man in the baseball hat is looking intently at her. When taken in the context of the environment, he would warrant some special attention. Photo: author

How can this possibly happen? It is arguably an extreme example of why so many crimes are successfully perpetrated every minute of every day. The first and often most difficult step to take in order to keep yourself and/or those around you safe is to learn the art of situational awareness. In a world of constant conflict between sheepdogs and wolves, the situationally unaware are the sheep. Colonel Jeff Cooper’s color-coded awareness scale called it being in condition “white.”

Whatever metaphor you wish to use, those who are not aware of their surroundings cannot take an active part in their own survival. The only reason they have not fallen prey to some vicious sociopath is because he has not chosen them … yet.

Awareness Formula

To be aware of your surroundings, not only do you have to look around you with some positive degree of regularity, but you also have to actually see what is around you and learn to recognize behavior that could represent a potential threat. To help accomplish this, there is a very simple formula to commit to memory.

Baseline + Anomaly = Decision.

Establishing a baseline and then detecting an anomaly are things most of us began doing in preschool with games like the one made popular by the Sesame Street song:

“One of these things is not like the others,

One of these things just doesn’t belong.

Can you tell which thing is not like the others

By the time I finish my song?”

Situational Awareness Training

Seeing these two surveillance photos from the bowling alley, the man is obviously stalking her, waiting to pounce when she is alone. Photos: author

As you scan your surroundings in any given environment, you establish a baseline. The baseline, simply put, is what would be considered normal for a particular place, time, group, and/or general situation. That baseline includes, but is not limited to, personal behaviors and mannerisms, clothing, sounds, and objects. An anomaly may be something that should be somewhere, but isn’t.

The overall context of the environment is crucial to the establishment of the baseline. For example; someone who appears focused, quiet and still might be appropriate in the context of a church service. But at a rowdy sporting event, they would be the anomaly. A man bundled up and walking briskly in a heavy trench coat would be appropriate on a cold winter day, but in the summertime would be an obvious anomaly. When a panicked crowd is screaming and running in a single direction, the person who is calmly walking in a different direction is another obvious anomaly for anyone bothering to look.

Before you can begin to notice these things, you must actively look for them. Once you have found the anomaly, then you have to make a decision. The decision might simply be to watch the anomaly more closely and gather more information before making a final decision. The decision might be to run away. The decision might be to call 911. The decision might be to draw your legally carried firearm and take immediate action. Only you can make that decision, but if you don’t know that a decision needs to be made, you will be taken by surprise.

Earlier I made a reference to sheepdogs and wolves. Without going into too much detail, the wolves are always out there. They lurk in the shadows surrounding the sheep, waiting for the appropriate time to pounce. They tend to favor the weak, the small, the seemingly unprepared, or the one who has strayed from the herd. The sheepdogs are there to defend the sheep and themselves. The wolves favor the surprise attack. Becoming situationally aware makes you difficult to surprise, which means you are difficult to harm.

parking lot attack

A common tactic for parking lot attacks. The panel truck parks on the driver’s side of the would-be victim’s vehicle. When unlocking the door, the victim’s back is to the perpetrator, who drags them into the van. Photo: author

Body Language

For the purpose of this article, I will limit baseline evaluations to human behavior. When we evaluate human behavior in an effort to detect the anomaly that indicates a potential threat, we have to pay attention to a person’s body language, which is controlled both consciously and subconsciously. Because the conscious mind is where most dishonest behaviors originate, the most honest behaviors are those that are subconscious.

How many times have you come face-to-face with someone you don’t like and whom you know does not like you, but you both smile for the sake of civility? Most adults have become skilled at lying with their facial expressions, learning to override the subconscious urge to wince, squint, or grimace, and to replace those urges with conscious smiles, raised eyebrows, or other deceptive expressions. Thus, facial expressions are the least trustworthy cue in a person’s body language.

For that reason, when evaluating body language, we look at a person’s hands to make certain that s/he is not an immediate threat, and then we evaluate from the feet, then to the legs, arms and hands (again), to the shoulders and finally the face. The face is last because that is where most of the deceptive body language takes place, but it can offer us some cues.

Many of the more honest, subconscious cues originate (at least in part) in the limbic system. That portion of the brain houses instincts that ensure survival. It is the center for strong emotions like rage, fear, hunger, and sexual drive. Limbic system responses are typically reflexive and instantaneous and do not involve the conscious brain. The fight, flight, or freeze response is also influenced by the limbic system. Therefore, cues that originate in this part of the brain are more genuine and more reliable as a threat assessment tool.

atm attack

The ATM is another obvious target area. Check your surroundings before approaching the machine. Photo: author

Subconscious Cues

What are some of those subconscious behaviors that we should be looking for? One of the most common is what we call a “smuggling behavior.” When people are trying to hide something, whether on their person or elsewhere, they have a subconscious tendency to want to check on it to be sure it is still there and still concealed. The result is patting or touching the area of the body where the item is concealed, or walking with a stiff arm in an effort to hold on to the smuggled item. When the smuggled item is out of reach, the eyes will often dart to and from the area where the item is concealed. These behaviors are also common in people who carry concealed weapons legally. Becoming comfortable with your concealed weapon and aware of these subconscious indicators can prevent you from being picked out of the crowd by someone else who has good situational awareness. When I carry concealed, I do not want anyone to know until I decide that they need to know. Whether it is a good guy or a bad guy is irrelevant.

Another cue is the subconscious behavior that is the subject of this article. People who are hyper-aware are, whether they should be or not, an anomaly. Someone who is always looking around is likely either a sheepdog or a wolf. Both have the same goal in mind when they are scanning their environment: survival. But the reasoning for that awareness is starkly different between the two.

Hyper-focus is on the opposite side of the awareness spectrum. It is a behavior directly related to the predator-prey instinct. When a predator has committed himself to attacking his prey, he will often become hyper-focused on the target or mission, becoming oblivious to anything else in the environment. That is one reason we would look at a person’s face for cues. Strangers rarely make definitive, long-term eye contact. It is usually a quick glance with or without an acknowledgment. Eye contact of more than a second or two usually means the person has targeted you. Assuming the person isn’t an acquaintance, in a general sense they are likely a predator and you are the prey. That means they could be anything from a harmless but annoying salesman all the way up to a violent criminal, or anything in between. Whatever the reason, it is imperative that you detect the anomaly and make a decision.

lurking criminal

Even in well-lit areas, a bad guy can hide close by in the shadows. Photo: author

The Four P’s

In conclusion, I would like to introduce you to my concept of the Four P’s of Situational Dynamics. They are:

Perceive. Process. Plan. Perform.

The first step is to perceive. You must not only look around you, but you must see what is around you and then process what you’ve seen. What does the information you perceive tell you in relation to the context of your environment? Establish the baseline and determine if there is an anomaly. The plan is the decision to act based on the processing. On a deeper level, the plan is also the pre-event training and practice that anyone who carries a concealed weapon should be doing on a regular basis. The last step is to perform the plan. Whether you decide to run, fight, or call the cavalry, you can do nothing until you are aware that you need to do something.

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36 Responses to “Situational Awareness Training and Evaluating Human Behavior”

  1. Gladys

    I once used the “check on what you are hiding” ploy when I was quite sure that I was being followed on a deserted street (I am 5’2″ and a guy who was about 6″ failed to pass me in a one block distance). While walking at a steady pace, I opened my shoulder bag, reached inside and patted my wallet, sort of nodded to myself, and hoped he would think I had checked my weapon. He continued to follow for a while but did not bother me.

  2. Dr Kamal Nigam

    Very good article. I have taught all my children from a young age to be situationally aware at all times as well as thinking of three exit routes if there is an event that occurs around him especially in these dangerous times. The only way you can be situationally aware is to make it a daily habit so that it becomes second nature.

  3. David Kopanski

    I served as a Government Contractor in Iraq for 4 years and during that time was taught and learned the art of SA. The ability to “see in the SA bubble” kept me safe in some very unfriendly circumstances. After the contract ended in 2009 I enjoyed the feeling of awareness, but noticed the experience of staying in the “bubble” becoming less and less over time back in the States. I figured that if I could teach SA I could retain the feeling, so I approached the local Police force, and several self defense geared organizations, but no one was interested. I am, therefore, glad to see you carrying the torch for SA which is much needed in today’s society.

  4. Dan

    The 4 Ps is Cooper’s OODA loop; Observe, Organize, Decide, Act. In any form, a good process to become familiar with. The whole process, in some situations, may take less than a second. That is why devising plans ahead of time is so important. Actions must be the result of muscle memory, not conscious thought. Practice/repetition is the only method for “imprinting” muscle memory. Once the decision has been reached, winning is achieved through, hopefully, surprise, speed, and overwhelming violence of action.

  5. Chad

    Your assessment of the young man in the photo “staring at the woman” is not correct, the white of his eyes are clearly shift fully left and he is in fact looking down the alleys even though his head is bladed in a manner that appears he is staring at her.

  6. Stuart L. Cockerham

    Good article on situational awareness. As a cross-country/OTR owner-operator in the moving and storage business for over 25 years, I’ve survived over 40 to 50 attacks by multiple attackers and a dozen armed robbery attempts. While I do have martial arts training and always carried a weapon handy, I’m sure that God instilled a hyper-sense of situational awareness in my sheep-dog attitude that has always allowed me to come through these situations relatively unscathed. I thank God for training my hands and feet to deal with those bent on evil, and my mind and senses to be aware and calmly walk through the valley of the shadow of death with no fear. Understanding that the worst thugs can do is hurt or kill me, but to kill me is to send me to be with my God in eternity is not a fearful thing. Evil thugs use fear to hold power over their victims and taking that factor out of the equation throws them off balance to begin with. Without situational awareness, the weapons and training are useless when you are sucker punched. Without God, it’s all useless. Thanks, SLC

  7. Robert Martin

    In this era of increased school violence since the 1998 shooting at Columbine High, As a school principal, I found this article to be totally in line with the practices and skills needed for principals nowadays to stay ahead in the area of threat assessment. Better execution of the four P’s will surely have brought a better result in recent school shootings.

  8. Kris Fetter

    I lived in a rough area of San Diego and I would walk my dog at 6 am and around 7 pm everyday. I ‘walked big’, if you know what I mean. Here I am a 50 something single woman walking a cockapoo and I rousted more thieves and vandals by being ‘bigger and badder’, or really, calling them out and making them leave. I regularly called the cops on trouble and made friends with the neighborhood businesses. I never made myself a target but kept my head on swivel (never on my phone), and aside from some swearing I was never threatened.

  9. Patricia Rivas

    I am a Business Continuity Manager – I found your article to be very much on point on what’s happening in today’s world. I would like very much to share it with your permission with our employees. Thank you. Patricia

    • Customer Service

      Hi Patricia. Please feel free to share PDN content, all we ask is that PDN is cited as the source.

  10. Ken

    The way I was trained in situational awareness was by using a technique taught by the Washington State Patrol – “commentary driving”. The technique, used for heightening awareness when driving, also works well in evaluating situations. You simply audibly describe what you are noticing and soon it becomes second nature and inaudible. Works great!

  11. Honey Badger

    Excellent article. Well written. Very informative and provides much food for thought. Thank you.

  12. Gladys

    I can recall purposely using the “smuggling” behavior once while walking on a rather deserted street. There was a man behind me who, given his height and stride, should have passed me but did not. I opened my shoulder bag, put my hand inside, and “patted my weapon.” I don’t know if that ws why he never approached any closer, but he did not. Oh yes, I had no weapon.

  13. John P

    A really excellent article. Presents good think points.

    The authors ‘how could this happen?” situational awarenes (or lack therof) explanation of the San Franscisco event can be expanded to include another human perception phenomenon described as “inattentional blindness”. People, otherwise alert and aware, in condition Yellow for example, often fail to notice visible or otherwise unexpected objects and events when they are focusing attention on something else. In other words, they don’t see what is visible. Information on inattentional blindnes phenomenon can be obtained through an internet search using keywords: attention, perception, inattentional blindness, dection, consciousness, illusion of attention, eyewitness testimony, human performance. A place to start is the Force Science Instute, Ltd (

    The color code refers to a state of mental and physical alertness and awareness. This alertness and awareness code seems to fit intoo COL. John Boyd’s Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) mental process or “loop”. The book “Left of Bang”, by Van Horne & Riley, describes a means to recognize the pre-event indicators to attacks so one could deal with threats proactively instead of being forced into a reactive situation.

    “Hyper-focus” is in essence “target fixation” which can also be detrimental to the predator’s situational awareness and present an advantage to an alert and aware “target.”

    The Perceive, Process, Plan, Perform “system” is another way of thinking about COL. Boyd’s Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) mental process or “loop”. The Plan step can include pre-operational mental visualization (“what-If” / scenario thinking) as well as hands-on immediate action drills (aka battle drills).

    • Tony Goe

      OODA was my first thought and how similar both are. Generally, P4 is the same without the all important loop. Exercising “color code” awareness is critical to response competency .

  14. Lee

    Another way I have learned the four P’s you describe is the acronym P.A.F.I. Perceive, Analyze, Formulate (a plan), Initiate (perform). Thanks for sharing this.

  15. Robert Mathews

    Check out the very good book “Left of Bang.” The title refers to a timeline, with a “bang” happening somewhere. What are you doing to the left of that bang in the timeline?

    • William Price

      be careful:thid is “left of the bang.” a fiction book is “left of bang.” big difference❗️

  16. Jeffery L. Walke

    I think this is the most relevant article today. I incorporate these principles in all my classes, but I’m still baffled how my students can go back to being so unaware so soon after a class. Our scenario training is pretty good. But on day 2 , I am still seeing an unaware level, that’s near to when they started training. Any ideas.

  17. Kenneth

    Very good to get this out. It is essentially the same as the Combat Profiler that they teach the Marines getting ready to deploy to a hostile area. More people need to be taught this essential survival skill to not only prepare them physically, but also mentally for an incident. Thanks for getting it out. I incorporate this into some of my classes based on USCCA, NRA, and LE training.

  18. Gary stewart

    Very good article. This type of information or training is just or more important that firearm training . Enjoyed

  19. Arthur L. Brown Sr.

    All my working life has been in a set orange. As I was always in hazardous work in ship yards and on the water. It was/is not hard to keep that level of awareness in all situations. Think like a rabbit act like a wildcat.

  20. David

    Situational awareness have kept me a live and unharmed in a lot of countries around the world and some rough US cities where I was sent for work even through shootings, bombings, vehicle and gas attacks.

  21. Owen McCullen

    I have always thought that a large part of situational awareness is turning off your conscious mind which distracts you from your surroundings. My first instructor, in the middle 1960’s, spoke of clearning your mind of all distracting thoughts. His mantra was to have your mind as calm as the flat surface of a lake without a ripple. His alternative was to have your mind as unruffled as the surface of a full moon. By clearing your mind of the conscious distractions, you can take in the situation, analyze behavior and appearances and not be distracted by your conscious mind focusing on trivia.

  22. Eldred

    I’m curious as to what the action would have been against the killer in the beginning of the article. Wait until he put the gun away, then jump him? Pull out your gun and shoot him? Wrestle for the gun when he pulled it out again? I can’t believe that nobody noticed a guy point a gun across the aisle…! NOBODY?!?

    • Ernie

      The main thing that comes into play in this scenario is DENIAL of the people in the vicinity. I have seen this happen personally on a number of occasions. People “do not want to get involved”, think, “this is not going to happen to me”, and of course the ever popular, “If he thinks I don’t care, he will leave me alone”.
      That is also adjunct to the basic realm of people just living in their own private worlds and focus two inches in front of their nose.
      These are usually the people who die or get hurt in these situations.

  23. Bud

    One vulnerable location is in a grocery parking lot unloading your groceries into your vehicle. Before you even start check around your vehicle and those parked nearby. Is someone loitering near your area? Stop unloading groceries and look around you periodically for any suspicious person.

  24. Duane

    Did anyone happen to notice the unattended child in the stroller? Someone else is not aware of the possibility of a child snatcher in the bowling alley.

  25. Chris

    Extremely good article. In my experience it’s not always the lack of awareness that the sheep show. It’s the more dangerous showing of denial (it will not happen to me thoughts). Awareness is great, but if we cannot except the fact that danger is everywhere (happening more and more). Sheep will always flock in mass crowds causing more panic and more harm.

  26. Gundog

    If I were a criminal and wanted to distract people and destroy their situational awareness I would invent the cellphone. That device is the most useful device to make people into walking zombies. Blocks a large part of their vision. Their concentration is shot to heck to a point they walk into anything in their path. A 5 year-old could mug them and they wouldn’t know it. Sad.

  27. Joseph

    I grew up looking around constantly to see if there were any threats wherever I went. I like this idea of establishing a baseline in different environments and perceiving the anomalies. I have known people that are extremely good at hiding their intentions but sometimes their subconscious does give them away.

    Thoroughly enjoyed this article, it is a lot of food for thought.