Simulated Learning: intuition in hostile environments

Published: January 16, 2020 | By Ebe Brons

In this EISF blog series, running throughout January and February, we explore the topic of security training. From traditional HEAT to virtual reality, we’ll be sharing experiences from both participants and trainers.


A man waiting by lines of cars going through a checkpoint from Ramallah, Palestine to enter Israel. Credit: Cole Keister

By Ebe Brons, Founder and Director of the Centre for Safety and Development (CSD)

“This course is nonsense!” This was a comment made by a senior participant in CSD’s Hostile Environment Awareness Training (HEAT). “I’ve been working in dangerous areas for decades without training. I don’t need this course – it’s a waste of my time.” Does this participant have a point? He relies on his intuition to ensure he makes the right decisions in foreign countries, and in all those years, he has either experienced very few dangerous situations or he has managed to save himself by making rapid and apparently good decisions.

Many international aid workers count on their intuition to make the right decisions in dangerous situations. Is that a sensible approach? And if so, is intuition something you can learn?

What is intuition?

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes: ‘Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition.’ Intuition enables you to recognise patterns and clues in a specific situation. Basically, intuition is solidified experience.

Take, for example, a highly experienced nurse who already knows the disease that a child has before the laboratory results arrive. This intuition then impacts the actions and choices she makes.

Every decision is, in a way, a prediction. You assume that a decision will have a particular effect in the future based on evidence from your past experiences.

Validity is a precondition for intuition

According to Kahneman, there are two preconditions for developing intuition: a situation must have sufficient validity and there must be sufficient opportunities to learn.

First of all, there must be enough valid clues to fully understand the situation. Validity is the causal or statistical structure of a situation, i.e. predictability. For example, a car speeds through a red light at a busy junction and you expect to see an accident. You would probably be correct. We call these high-validity situations. The game of chess also has high validity because of its clearly defined structure.

On the other hand, predicting lottery results has low validity. It is impossible to know what the winning number will be, and it is simply guessing when you buy a ticket. In fact, even high-validity situations, such as chess, involve a lot of uncertainty. You can become proficient in the game, but that gives you no certainty of winning. High-validity environments provide an excellent backdrop for learning intuition.

Learning intuition

Secondly, someone must have been given the opportunity to recognise clues in a situation. So how do you create this? In an article in Current Directions in Psychological Science, psychologist Robin Hogarth draws a distinction between two environments in which you learn to recognise patterns; ‘kind learning environments’ and ‘wicked learning environments’.

Kind learning environments

A kind learning environment is one in which you learn to recognise patterns in a situation and then apply these in a decision-making scenario. A simple example is a heavily-bleeding wound, where you can stem the bleeding with the help of a correctly applied tourniquet. In other words, in a situation (bleeding wound), an intervention (applying a tourniquet) causes the bleeding to stop. Practising this creates experience that can be applied in future situations, and is very likely to have the same result. There is a causal link between the patterns in the situation, the action and the outcome.

Wicked learning environments

A wicked learning environment is one in which you receive no feedback. You may well think that you’ve learned something, but you actually haven’t. If the same situation happens again, you will ‘intuitively’ apply what you think you’ve learned, but the outcome will be random. An example of this is an experienced traveller who’s never been attacked abroad. He thinks that this is because of his self-confident and determined behaviour, but what actually keeps the attackers at bay is his stature. He’s a big man. On one occasion when he is attacked, he confidently and firmly addresses the attacker. That’s what he thought he’d learned from previous situations. The escalation in response to his threatening attitude results in a physical scuffle, leaving the traveller wounded.

Developing intuition through training

Just like our senior traveller at the start, you can learn intuition in practical, real-world situations. But the problem is, you often don’t know if you are dealing with a kind or wicked environment. Have you actually learned the right thing?

In order to know this for sure, it makes sense to create kind learning environments with the help of training courses, and in particular, simulations. Because theoretical lessons on intuition have limited value, it’s more effective to experience the situation in the form of a simulation, which can include patterns and clues that the participant learns to recognise. The trainee is then given the tools needed to bring about the desired change to the situation. Because this happens in a contained and controlled situation, a kind learning environment is created.

Presenting a (dangerous) situation in a hyper-realistic way helps you to approximate reality as closely as possible. If the participant is later confronted with similar situations in a hostile area, their intuition can be triggered, and the learned behaviour or skill can be applied.

More than this, repetition is key. Through frequent practice, several variations of a situation can be experienced, enabling a richer and more reliable intuition to be learned. As Robin Hogart puts it in his book Educating Intuition, ‘…we must practise, and practise and practise.’

As in the above example of the man who is attacked, personalised feedback is also crucial for HEAT. Although dangerous situations may vary, there is one constant: the participant. They may even be one of the most important factors in a situation, and also have a significant influence on it. If the man in the example had received clear feedback, he may have been more open to tools that can actually help him. If he hadn’t threatened the attacker, he would have had a greater chance of escaping the attack unscathed.

With duty of care, is intuition enough?

Back to the senior participant at the start of this story: the idea that he has the right intuition is his own estimation of the situation. It’s possible that he learned the right lessons in previous years and only needs to rely on intuition. But, as an organisation, your duty of care means that you are actually responsible for this employee. How do you know if he has learned the right lessons? A safe way forward is to create a kind learning environment by means of realistic training courses, thereby ensuring that the employee is properly prepared for work in hostile environments.