Observation skills

Observation skills, Lodestar Festival

pdf version.

Ellis Weinberger, version of 13 September 2014, ew206@cam.ac.uk

These notes are similar to those I distributed to stewards, after briefing them at LodeStar Festival 2014.

Observation skills

We are here to help our guests, and to help our fellow stewards. To do this we need to see and understand hazards. But spotting hazards is hard, because of the way our eyes work, and because of the way our brain works. In order to see, understand and respond well to a hazard, we will learn and practice two exercises.

What is a hazard? A hazard is a sign that something might go wrong, and a threat is something which is going wrong. A barbecue next to a tent is a hazard. A tent on fire is a threat.

Here are two methods to help us see what is in front of us:

Using our eyes methodically

Move your eyes horizontally from a point on your left to a point on your right, moving your eyes in steps the size of your fist. From the point on your right lift your eyes up a step the size of your fist and move them to the point on your left, and keep on moving your eyes, in steps the size of your fist, in order to cover the entire area you need to scan.

Move your eyes quickly from step to step, letting your eyes rest on the step for not more than half a second. Let your eyes lead the movement of your head, and move your head smoothly.

Imagine that everything you can see is covered by a grid, like a chessboard, and that every grid square is the size of your fist. You have to cover every grid square you look at with fist sized blobs.

Asking ourselves open questions

Ask yourself open ended questions about the hazards around you, so that you will think about the hazards, and see the hazards. We want to see things which might go wrong, before they go wrong. When our guests are arriving at, or leaving our event, more is happening, so there are more hazards.

Ask yourself questions which help you see hazards at your location, which are related to the activity at your location. The time of day and the weather will also help you choose the hazards.

  1. Who is near me?

    How do I feel about them? How do they compare to the other guests?

  2. What are they doing?

    How well does their behaviour fit the time and the place? How are other guests reacting to their behaviour?

  3. What could harm our guests?

    How clear are the fire exits? How stable is the fencing?


Chapter 5, Scanning Techniques and Sighting Characteristics, Mission Aircrew Reference Text Volume I Mission Scanner, Civil Air Patrol, U.S. Air Force Auxiliary: http://nesa.cap.gov/s/CAP-Mission-Scanner-Task-Guides-May13.pdf

Searching the “Cube” – an analysis of basic searcher scanning, SAR techniques and training, Spotlight Forum, R. “Skip” and Brett C. Stoffel: http://www.nbgsara.nb.ca/rvgsar/images/stories/4_spotlight_searching_the_searcher_cube.pdf

Did You See the Unicycling Clown? Inattentional Blindness while Walking and Talking on a Cell Phone, Ira E. Hyman Jr, S. Matthew Boss, Breanne M. Wise, Kira E. McKenzie and Jenna M. Caggiano, Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24: 597-607 (2010)

You do not talk about Fight Club if you do not notice Fight Club: Inattentional blindness for a simulated real-world assault, Christopher F Chabris, Adam Weinberger, Matthew Fontaine, Daniel J Simons, i-Perception (2011) volume 2, pages 150-153

1 Thinking as you move: Observation skills and personal safety

Ellis Weinberger wrote this on 9 January 2011, and revised it on 16 January 2011, and on 1 March 2011. It was posted in the Neighbourhood Watch section of the Dry Drayton website:
http://www.drydrayton.net/nwatch.asp .
The PDF version.

When we are watching our neighbourhood, we need to keep our focus outwards. By focusing on our environment, we can see the signs of problems early, and take steps to avoid trouble. By taking steps early, we reduce risk to ourselves and to our neighbours.

Here are some exercises which can make us pay attention to our environment. They are based on methods used in rehabilitation after brain injury, and on drills which help people fly and drive safely.

The exercises consist of questions. Ask yourself these questions whenever you can. These questions train you to keep your attention focused outwards and on the situation.

  1. Who is near me?
  2. What are they doing?
  3. Where would they hide?

1.1 Who is near me?

Look 360 degrees around you, every few breaths, to see and notice all the people near you. Describe them by asking yourself questions such as:

  1. What are they wearing?
  2. What is the shape of their face?
  3. What is the registration number of their vehicle?

Asking these kinds of questions forces you to notice the people around you, and to look more alert. If you notice suspicious people earlier, you buy time to deal with the situation. By looking alert, you make yourself safer.

1.2 What are they doing?

Describe the behaviour of the people around you, by asking yourself questions such as:

  1. How well does their behaviour fit the time and the location?
  2. How good is their location for observing people?
  3. How much attention are they paying to you?

By asking these kinds of questions, you learn which behaviour is normal, and which behaviour is suspicious. As soon as you notice suspicious behaviour, you can take steps to reduce the risk.

1.3 Where would they hide?

Wherever you go, ask yourself where you can stand, and how you can walk, to enable you to see people approaching:

  1. From which direction could someone surprise you?
  2. Where would someone stand in order to surprise you?
  3. Where are the blind corners, doorways and parked cars?

Ask these kinds of questions to notice places where you can be surprised, and to keep your distance from such places. If you keep your distance from places where you can be surprised, you will be safer.

2 Summary

We can reduce crime in our neighbourhoods, and reduce risk to ourselves, by asking ourselves the right kinds of questions. These exercises help us notice the people around us, determine if their behaviour is suspicious, and stay away from places where we can be surprised.

©Ellis Weinberger

8 April 2002

Here are some exercises, which can help you to pay more attention to what is happening around you, at those times when you feel this might be beneficial. When you start using these exercises, you will be conscious of doing them. With enough practice, you will carry out these exercises without having to think about them.

Notice everyone around you. Every minute or so, survey your surroundings in all directions, scanning by moving your eyes from point to point. For a week or so, keep track of the number of times people are able to draw near you from any direction before you realise. Practise to reduce the number of times people are able to draw near you before you realise.

Evaluate your surroundings. Ask yourself, every minute or so, two questions: Who is near me? and: Where could someone be hiding?

Describe the situation. Describe to yourself, as you would to a person over the 'phone, what you are doing, what you are seeing, and whether you feel that the situation is normal. For example: “I am walking in a confident manner down the middle of a path between buildings towards the road. The path is well lit. I cannot see any people near me. Ahead to the left there is a doorway. I cross to the right hand side of the path and continue walking. There is an unkempt person sleeping in the doorway. The situation does not feel threatening.”


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If you have any questions, please e-mail ew206@cam.ac.uk.

Ellis Weinberger; last revised July 2015