031 Pattern of vigilance

As Fig. 1 indicates, the conflict-theory model of emergency decision making specifies four conditions as prerequisites for the pattern of vigilance. Each of these conditions can be fostered by appropriate informational inputs and other situational variables, such as exposure to prior training in simulated emergencies similar to the current one. Whenever all four conditions are present, the person is most likely to meet the criteria for vigilant information processing.

The first two of the four conditions make for arousal of decisional conflict – the person wants to avoid expected losses by taking whatever protective action is available but at the same time does not want to take the most salient one available because he realizes that the new course of action could result in other potential losses that he also wants to avoid. In this state of conflict, he becomes vigilant and seeks a better means of escape than the ones he has just been contemplating. He will mobilize his cognitive resources, scanning his memory intensively for previously acquired information about how to cope with the threat. He will also examine and appraise any external sign or verbal communication from others that holds forth the promise of helping him to find a more satisfactory escape route. His vigilant state mobilizes him to initiate social contacts, seeking advice and information from anyone he regards as potentially knowledgeable.

The third condition takes account of observations concerning the importance of hope as a crucial determinant of the quality and duration of vigilant behavior. In order to continue to search for a safe means of warding off or escaping the danger, the person must maintain the belief that a better escape route exists than the risky ones he is reluctant to adopt, and that helpful information can be obtained if he continues to seek it.

The fourth condition pertains to the decision maker’s belief that there is sufficient time to find the safest way out. Unlike a person in a panic-like (hypervigilant) state, a person in a vigilant state does not make snap judgments about the best thing to do, or become unduly influenced by what the people around him are trying to do. Rather, he uses whatever time he has to look for and evaluate potential escape routes. He notices obvious defects in the escape routes he is examining and does not overlook more complicated detours that might lead to a much safer way out. Thus, the person in a state of vigilance does not suffer from the cognitive constriction, perseveration, and errors of judgment that occur when one becomes temporarily hypervigilant.

We do not assume that the only causes of hypervigilance or of defensive avoidance are the conditions described in our model. Other conditions – such as taking certain drugs, witnessing a horrifying automobile accident, or becoming aware of one’s own state of high physiological arousal – can also evoke hypervigilance or defensive avoidance. An experiment by Krisher, Darley, and Darley for example, showed that young adults were much more likely to become fearful and then to display symptoms of defensive avoidance in response to a fear-arousing warning about the need for vaccination against mumps if they were made aware of their own allegedly fast heartbeats by being given false EKG auditory feedback than if they were given the same warning without the false autonomic feedback.