Blog - The Raven Speaks

Perceived Risk in Technical Training

Originally published in our February 2014 newsletter, Training Psychology.  We're revisiting it here to give recognition to the importance of training that the mental health of students into consideration.  


Challenge by choice is an educational model that has been adopted throughout many industries that utilize experiential eduation.

The scenarios that we use during our courses are a version of experiential education. Experiential education allows students to explore activities and skills in a controlled environment. During scenarios, participants are able to fine-tune techniques required for performance on the job. However, there's a neurological line that can be crossed during this type of training.  On one side, students can successfully develop new mental skills that they can apply to challenges they will encounter on the job. On the other side, students can disengage with the experience because they feel overwhelmed, afraid, or uncomfortable.

High stress decision-making expert Gary Klein made this observation regarding the requirements for effective scenario-based training;

"Training effective task performance in stressful situations requires that the following conditions be met: (a) Trainees should be exposed to and familiarized with stressors characteristic of the criterion situation; such stressors should be introduced into the training process in a manner that (b) prevents the build-up of anxiety and (c) minimizeds interference with the acquisition of skills tha the training is designed to promote."

Another way to look at the ideal mix for experiential education it is to consider the following models:

Don't waste my time is the headspace learners linger in when nothing new or interesting is coming their way.

Next, when participants are given new techniques to engage with, they may experience those techniques within their zone of comfort (a whitewater kayaker being asked to perform a defensive swim on an SRT1 course, for example).

However, that same contained and controlled technique could lead someone to feel they are in danger (like a non-boater being asked to try a defensive swim), as they enter the zone called perceived risk.

The trouble begins for an instructor when participants slip from the inner circle of perceived risk to the outer edge. Once they've reached this point, there is no neurological difference in the participant's mind between perceived risk and actual risk, and their body chemically responds as if they are in a zone of actual risk. If this shift occurs, the instructor has lost their connection with the student. Objective reality, no matter how eloquently explained, has no bearing on the participant's reaction. The student's brain believes it is in physical danger, and in mere miliseconds it has engaged one of the oldest instincts in the human body - fight or flight. A wild soup of chemicals floods the brain, and only an unrelated physical activity can disengage the process (and this disengagement still takes a literal minute or two). Participants in fight or flight mode are in no position to learn new skills or techniques. Class dismissed.

It's likely that we've all witnessed someone slip over this line performing a skill that is realistically safe. The reasons are many for why individuals slip over that line. Past experience certainly plays a role, and a trainer's delivery and course progression also has an obvious influence. The latest research suggests that individuals perform best when they remain engaged in the sweet spot right on the edge of zone of comfort and perceived risk.

It's a fine line for trainers and instructors to walk, but awareness of this phenomenon is a critical step in the right direction. As a participant, you can also keep tabs of your mental location on this spectrum - knowing yourself well enough to opt out of a certain skill or technique during training will ensure that you retain what you do learn.


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Nicholas Carroll, Training Coordinator
Whitehorse Fire Department

Fantastic course! Fun and informative ... if school was like this, I'd be a doctor!


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