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Choice is used interchangeably between a noun (a chosen item or course of action - My choice is the green one or My choice is to turn back) and a verb (choosing an option, deciding between possibilities, making a selection). From these definitions it can be seen that it is common in English usage to interchange the word choice for both “alternative options” and “decisions”. E.g. I have a number of choices from which I can make my decision and There are several alternative options from which I can make my choice.
In aviation the process of “making a choice” is more frequently referred to as ”decision-making”. So, for the purposes of this article, “choice” here will refer to the creation of alternative options (creating choice) and what makes an alternative option valid and viable (useful and realistic choice). These are two crucial steps in the decision-making process:
- generating possible solutions to complete a task or fulfil a goal, and
- assessing each of these possible solutions (options) for viability.
These will be explained in more detail below.
Primarily, we are concerned here with choice being made in the moment when dealing with real-time problems during operations. It could be considered as a normal part of TEM and tactical decision-making.
This is not to distract from the importance, in aviation, of strategic decision-making and the importance of choice when planning. In these cases there will be a greater amount of time available to consider potential impacts on other elements of the organisation/system, and ideally it should be used to exhaust the possibilities of setting a latent error.
Choice – part of the Decision-Making Process
Decision-making can be defined as the cognitive process of selecting a course of action from among multiple alternatives; however, it is better described as a process with several steps, one of which is the creation of those “multiple alternatives”.
Decision-making needs to be a structured procedure in order to facilitate collection of all relevant facts, elimination of ‘instinctive analyses’, biased thinking (such as inferences and assumptions), setting of viable goals, creation of viable options, assessment of those options for risk versus outcome, making a logical choice (the decision itself), and implementing a plan and process for continually assessing the progress and impact of the chosen course of action.
These steps are most easily seen in the many decision-making models that are used by pilots and air traffic controllers as decision-making aids. Two are shown below:
- Detect a change, or Describe the situation
- Estimate significance – threat, error and risk assessment
- Choose a safe outcome – set/agree a goal
- Identify possible actions/options – in what ways can the outcome/goal be achieved
- Do - take action (this implies that a choice has been made from the possible actions/options)
- Evaluate the result – success in achieving a goal/outcome must ultimately be measurable, but it is deviations from the implemented action/option that need to be monitored which either confirm that the goal remains achievable or is no longer likely without further changes.
In this model, step 3 is “choosing a safe outcome” – we are not concerned here with this choice; often the safe outcome will be known and/or clear, such as, landing safely, avoiding conflict, or completing the task successfully. Instead our definition of “choice” is more closely linked with steps 4 and 5: I – Identifying possible actions/options, which is about “creating choice”; and, D – prior to taking action “choosing” one of the options – preferably the most favourable (see Judgement below).
- Gather Information about the situation
- Review Information – increase situational awareness and assess risks
- Analyse Alternatives – predict (from experience) those alternative options that are most likely to succeed safely.
- Decide – i.e. select one of the alternatives (and act)
- Evaluate Outcome of Action
In this model the element of “choice” is implied, but not stated, between steps 3 and 4: A – Analyse Alternatives, assumes that alternative courses of action have been created to allow some choice; and, D – Decide (what to do) assumes that a “choice” has been made.
This is a short paragraph, but probably contains the most important sentence written on this whole page.
A pilot’s level of situational awareness determines the solutions that will be considered and helps guide the choice of a response.
Creating Choice - Alternative Solutions
To make a choice one needs alternatives to choose from. Choice-making/creating also benefits from being structured when constraints of time, resources and the presence of threats exist i.e. when manning a busy ATC sector, or making an approach to land. In such situations choice options are often limited by immediacy, the operator(s) past experience and confidence in their own abilities and the abilities of others. If time is plentiful and threats are not imminent i.e. when making long-term management decisions, then choice-creation can be much less structured to the point where extremely flamboyant options can be, and ought to be, considered (thinking outside the box).
* One option is no choice. We often use the phrase there’s only one thing to do (or something similar); this is often code for It’s the first thing that came into my head and therefore is the most obvious, so it must be right, and it’s what we are going to do – any questions?. The first solution that comes into our mind, or is “voiced” between a crew or team tends to have the greatest attraction and importance; therefore, it is important to recognise this and create alternatives with equal weight.
* Two options: decision-makers may be drawn to one option in preference to the other, but not always due to its merits; e.g. it is possible to be primarily persuaded by aversion to the rejected solution, or attracted to another because it was the first that came to mind. Neither attraction nor aversion should guide choice; attraction and aversion are driven by our instinctive and impulsive mind and not our rational mind. Relying on instincts, because they “feel” right is a human tendency in preference to doing the hard work of “thinking”.
* Three options: this allows for the seemingly logical rejection of extremes. At one extreme the alternative may be deemed the most likely to succeed but also the most risky, and at the other extreme the alternative may be unlikely to achieve the goal but considered the least risky. This is the production v safety dilemma. However, the remaining (middle) option is not necessarily the best. Our logical analysis can convince us that our final choice is the ideal, however, this is “lazy” logic; we’ve convinced ourselves that we have “thought” about the problem – when we haven’t at all.
* 4 options or more: ideally this requires the brain to engage and, if adequate time is available, to reach a conclusion, then it can lead to a “real” choice between workable solutions.
*NB: The comments above refer to situations where no Standard Procedure exists, otherwise, in those cases there would be only one option.
Making a choice requires judgement, and the process of judging requires making an assessment. This process requires that we estimate and then compare: we estimate if something is right or wrong, good or bad, works or doesn’t work etc.; and, we compare alternatives with each other to determine which is the best option. We tend to assess and judge in two distinct ways, intuitively and rationally:
- Rational judgement is made “expertly” using experience, skills, knowledge, and all available and relevant resources. It is fact based, logical, and this judgement can be altered, adjusted, and changed when new evidence emerges.
- Instinctual judgement is irrational and value based. It is prone to bias and other cognitive and social influences. Instinctive judgements are less likely to be changed, even when contrary evidence is presented. Instead, due to the emotional elements of ego, pride, self-esteem etc, these judgements are more likely to be reinforced, and supporting evidence sought.
Options for managing risk from which a choice is made can include:
- No go, or cease operation
- Limiting operation in some way to reduce exposure to risk by imposing boundaries and limits e.g.
- daylight operations only
- no single crew operations
- tailwind and crosswind limits
- Making no changes and continuing to operate, but with increased monitoring
- As above, but with the additional requirement to delay making a choice until further information is available and/or a specific “point” is reached e.g.:
- Deciding to continue to destination aerodrome may be dependant on a satisfactory TAF, but this may not be available for a period of time, but would need to be obtained before the “last point of diversion”. An unsatisfactory TAF may then require mandatory diversion to either of two different alternative aerodromes. The choice of which alternative can be made in advance, but no action taken until destination weather is assessed. In effect, choices are made in advance and dependent on further information.
- When “unstabilised” at 1500ft on approach due to localised turbulence, a crew may select several pre-set choices (decisions) i.e. continue with approach until 1000ft: if still unstabilised – go around and make one more attempt; if stabilised – continue approach; if approach becomes unstabilised below 1000ft – go around and divert.
- No further or alternative action required.
Limitations to Choice
When considering solutions to a problem, some options may be perfectly valid, and even ideal, except certain elements preclude them from being considered as a viable choice, e.g.:
- Time constraints – when the option requires more time than is available
- Technological restraints – when the option requires the use of of some technical equipment or software which is absent or not functioning correctly
- Resource limitations – when there is insufficient manpower, technology, procedures, support etc
- Lack of knowledge, skill or experience – when all the resources are present, but the person, or crew, are lacking sufficient knowledge, skill or experience between them (this could also pertain to a crew/team who are qualified in a procedure, but who have not practiced it recently and therefore lack confidence and certainty)
- Unacceptable Risk – when the consequences of failure are unacceptable and the risk of failure is assessed as too high; especially when other available options involve lower risk
- Cost – solutions are available, and would work very well, but the cost is prohibitive to an operation e.g. mandating that all gliders (sailplanes) be fitted with weather radar!
- Decision Making
- Critical Thinking - An Introduction to Situation Awareness and Decision Making - Presentation
- Kahneman, D. 2011. Thinking Fast and Slow. London. Penguin Publishing.
- Mlodinow, L. 2008. The Drunkard’s Walk: how randomness rules our lives. London. Penguin Publishing.
- Hallinan, J, T. 2009. Why We Make Mistakes: how we look without seeing, forget things in seconds, and are pretty sure we are way above average. New York. Broadway Books.