Battlefield intuition: It's not a mystery

The importance of intuitive decision-making in complex situations has been proven over and over, specifically when time is short, risk is high and information is low. That decision-makers at all levels should improve their intuition is a no-brainer, but this is a challenge in our ‘resource constrained’ operating and training environments.

Recently Major Mark Mankowski made the case for using computer games to improve battlefield intuition. This is a good idea however, as he also pointed out. Computer games are not 'traditionally a pursuit of officers in polite company' and it is this common misperception that could prevent mastery of our craft. There is, in fact, a direct positive correlation between experience and intuition. Without using those great and, in this case highly relevant, German words like fingersptizgefühlgestalt or even weltanschauung, I will endeavour to explain why computer games are, in fact, on the mark.

Intuition is not magical. It is not the sixth sense or some other kind of paranormal brain function that is only accessible to the gifted. Intuition is merely a recognition of the environment that then allows for a higher probability of understanding the immediate future. Or simply, the more experience you have in something the less you need to think about it before making a decision. The difference between instinct and intuition is the requirement for a decision. So practising that assault up the hill over and over will develop instinct. Practising the same assault and being hit with decision points over and over develops intuition. This is because you begin to recognise patterns and causal relationships. The key is to ensure you, or your leaders, have developed a mindset highly attuned to, and experienced in, the operating environment. How is this done?

Baylor’s influential U-shaped intuition model, shown below, provides a handy illustration of intuition respective to expertise/experience and allows us to understand the progressive growth over time. There is an initial high level of intuition in novices that then rapidly drops. At some point intuition starts to increase. But why is this and how do we reduce the time spent sliding down the curve?

Figure 1: U-shaped developmental progression of intuitive thinking.

Intuition is directly linked to experience in an environment. In every situation the brain maps out the environment, the variables and the influencing factors. Recognition of similar factors, variables and influences allows presupposition of possible outcomes. An understanding of the possible and or likely outcomes from a situation enables very quick decision‑making. Often the decisions seem to appear out of nowhere. Because this decision-making cycle is characterised by the lack of a rigorous and observable decision-making process, it has developed an aura of mystery.

What is often missed is that intuition is domain specific. Experience matters, but only if it is relevant. So how is it that newbies have high intuition? Baylor posited that because inexperienced decision-makers apply mental maps from different domains, their intuition can actually be quite high. They are often able to see connections and paths obscured to someone more familiar with the environment. However, intuitive decision-making (sometimes called naturalistic decision‑making) relies on an individual’s expertise in the domain for consistently good results.

Initially, decision-making involves the learning of a set of rules, which corresponds to the downward trajectory. As mental maps are developed, these internalised rules become increasingly complex and abstract until the expert ceases to follow rules, but sees and acts on recognised patterns. Normative decision-making generally requires a process, such as the ubiquitous Military Appreciation Process, that sequentially analyses the situation, understands the mission, develop and compares options and finally generates a decision. The expert, however, does not develop a range of options, as is the case in normative decision-making, but develops a single option that is either accepted, modified or rejected. Additionally the expert will often use incremental decision-making (think a little, act a little and evaluate the outcomes).

The key to developing intuition then is the development of memorised mental maps that correspond to the domain. So, how good is your memory? Long-term memory is generally hidden from the consciousness and relies on cues being brought to the working memory. It is accepted that complex problem-solving expertise in any area relies on the acquisition of tens of thousands of domain-specific mental maps as they provide context to our perceptual focus. These mental maps inform us what information to pay attention to, what to ignore and how the significant information relates to the specific situation.

The use of simulation and modelling allows the practitioner to develop the experience in the absence of the real thing. As intuition is dependent upon experience, any method used to develop it should not be ignored. War games and tactical exercises without troops have long been in our repertoire to simulate war, so why shouldn’t other simulation methods be made available or normal? Just remember that the only difference between a computer game and an authentic simulation and modelling program is intent.

Major Leon D. Young is the current Chief of Defence Force Fellow. He has lectured in strategic decision-making and is an international speaker on strategic thinking. He has a Masters of Science in operations research and analysis and is currently completing a doctorate in computational strategic thinking models.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government. Further information.