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  • Writer's pictureAndy Murphy

How to Improve Your Situational Awareness: Learning from Mistakes

How to Improve Your Situational Awareness

Essential Tips for Avoiding Situational Awareness Missteps

I want to share with you about situational awareness, not from the standpoint of learning new concepts, but from some of the stakes that we might be making. I make mistakes with situational awareness frequently and the ability to learn from that is what’s going to make you a better and safer person. 

If you see yourself in any of these mistakes, it’s okay. You are human. You get tired or you become distracted - it happens. I’ve made all of these mistakes. That’s why it was so easy for me to write this article and make the podcast that goes with it.

Situational Awareness Mistake: Jumping to Conclusions  

First off, let’s remember the old adage of not jumping to conclusions. The best way that we can fully be objective as to what’s going on and understand any threats that may be present is to remember the rule of three. 

Generally speaking, you need to be able to see three pre-event indicators or anomalies in order to make your decision. You don’t need to rush and see one thing and jump the gun, or look for two things and just assume that you’ll find the third later. You’re really looking for those three pre-event indicators to really cement that you understand the intent of the person that you’re watching, and that things are about to go south. 

There are instances where you can jump to action just after seeing one thing. For example, you are a guard at a bank and the first time you see a person is when they walk in the door carrying a shotgun. At that point you need to decide to act.

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Another thing here to consider and will get into this a bit later is that once you do see three prevent indicators that’s when a decision needs to happen. Don’t wait for a fourth indicator because that might be too late. 

When you see three and they align with your objective understanding of what the intent of the individual is, that is when action is required. For civilians like me, if you see one pre-event indicator that makes you feel uncomfortable, it’s completely fine for you to leave that environment. You have no responsibility other than to protect yourself and your family. Just don’t take any action beyond that based on less than three indicators.

Situational Awareness Mistake: Multitasking

A mistake that people make frequently with situational awareness and personal security is that we think we can multitask. I won’t spend too much time on this topic today because I’ve gone over it in the past.

We need to understand that our brain cannot cognitively handle more than one thing at a time. If you think you’re good at multitasking, it most likely means that you are good at starting and stopping tasks frequently and that is a skill, don’t get me wrong. But you can’t sit here and say I can text and drive. There’s going to be more than a few people in your ZIP Code today who are going to cause an accident thinking that they could text and drive at the same time. 

You also cannot outsource your personal safety to multitasking. You can’t FaceTime someone walking down the street and also be able to catch 2 to 3 prevent indicators that somebody is waiting for you at the end of the block who is going to mug you. Your brain cannot process these two things simultaneously and do them well. 

The takeaway is to make sure that when you are out in public that you are freeing your brain, and your focus, so that you can see any potential threats that may exist in the environment.

Situational Awareness Mistake: You Don’t Know Everything

The big mistake that a lot of us make, including myself, is thinking that we are Jason Bourne. There’s a great scene in the first movie where Jason is sitting in a diner and he breaks down an entire environment based on very few observations. 

It’s a really cool scene and a common trick that Hollywood uses to demonstrate a complex topic in a compressed time to move the plot along. That’s a writing trick, not reality. 

We can’t just look at one instance of a person, whether it is their clothes, their behavior or their lack of behavior and assume that we know everything about them. Yes, if you see somebody walking into a bank with a shotgun that is a pretty clear indicator that they’re there to rob the place or harm somebody in the bank.

But if you notice someone in the grocery store, and then see them again at the gas station down the street - that does not mean that you can automatically assume that you were under surveillance by a nation state. What’s most likely happened here is that this person is getting their groceries and gas on the way home, just like you and a million other people are doing. 

So do not assume that you can look at somebody for two seconds and fully understand everything about this person and predict what they’re going to do because chances are you were just making assumptions and that is going to harm your thinking and also put you down a path of action that most likely isn’t going to be correct for the situation.

Situational Awareness Mistake: Lack of Action 

The last thing that I want to mention in this podcast is the lack of action. Situational awareness is a great tool for keeping yourself and your family safe. But there’s a simple math equation that we must keep in mind in order to really make this work for us. 

The math equation is B + A = D. 

You’ve most likely heard me say this before because it’s so simple. B stands for baseline and simply put, that is the typical behavior that you expect to find in an environment. The baseline for a library is quiet with people reading. Maybe you hear some clicking of typing on a computer or phone but that’s just about it. 

A stands for anomaly. The anomaly in the library is somebody talking loudly or slamming books down on the table or setting the place on fire. D stands for decision and this is where people get messed up. 

If you were in the library and there is someone being loud and throwing books around and all the sudden takes out a lighter and tries to set a pile of books on fire. You have to make. The decision at that point is either to leave or to try to extinguish the fire. 

Many people will spend a lot of time observing and they will notice the oddities, but they won’t do anything about it. Awareness is useless unless you decide to act. You can’t go through your life being really observant and not doing anything about it. 

Don’t be one of these people who you see in security footage who watch someone get hurt and then get hurt themselves. Recently there was a video released of a subway platform in New York City, where a man went and punched women on the platform. 

He starts at one side of the platform and punches every woman that he sees, and no one reacts significantly to stop him. The last woman in the clip is on her phone and wearing headphones. 

She had no idea that this man had punched three women before getting to her. Unfortunately, she takes the worst hit.

Situational Awareness Mistake: Learn from Your Mistakes

I would like to think that if she were paying attention, she would at least have fled to avoid getting hurt. These are the mistakes that we can make that can harm us.

Making mistakes is a part of learning. If you’ve made these, and I have, don’t be discouraged. Learn from what you’ve seen and how you’ve responded. That will make you a safer person. 

If you want to sharpen your skills, I highly suggest The Human Behavior Podcast from Greg Williams and Brian Marren. They are always tackling interesting subjects and can make it easy for us to understand and apply to our everyday life. 

Watch: How to Improve Your Situational Awareness


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Andy Murphy

Andy Murphy founded The Secure Dad in 2016 with the aspiration to help families live safer, happier lives. What started as a personal blog about family safety has turned into an award-winning podcast, an Amazon best-selling book, and online courses. He focuses his efforts in the areas of home security, situational awareness, and online safety.


Andy is a husband and father. His interests include coaching youth basketball, hiking, and trying to figure out his 3D printer.

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