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The U.S. Navy’s research arm has developed a training program to help Marines weaponize their intuitions—in essence, pushing young riflemen to trust their guts in order to detect ambushes, spot buried bombs, and know who to trust on chaotic, urban battlefields.
It’s almost, but not quite, a military effort to teach Extra-Sensory Perception, or ESP.
“This is an attempt to improve what regular people already have,” John Alexander, the author of The Warrior’s Edge and an expert in fringe military research, told The Daily Beast.
The Office of Naval Research’s four-year, $4 million “sensemaking” initiative, launched in 2014, “depends on extracting environmental cues, interpreting their meaning and then connecting them in a plausible story.”
The Daily Beast obtained, via the Freedom of Information Act, ONR’s 23-page sensemaking training manual. The manual breaks sensemaking down into two distinct skills: “perspective-taking”—basically empathy—and “characterizing,” or imagination.
A Marine practicing sensemaking would, through empathy, intuit the relationships and dynamics in the community and environment in which he’s operating. Having gathered this raw information, he then imagines stories that, in theory, anticipate threats and opportunities.
To learn perspective taking, the manual tells Marines to picture a typical first day in Afghanistan. An overworked Marine is searching an outpost for his Afghan army contact when he comes across an Afghan officer yelling at some of his own soldiers.
“The trainees of this unit do not follow the officer’s instruction well, and you’ve heard they have little trust in his ability to lead and train effectively,” the manual explains. The Marine’s interpreter explains that this man is the Marine’s contact in-country. They’re going to be partners.
“How do you view [the officer] and why do you have this view of him?” the manual asks the trainee. As the Afghanistan scenario continues, the Marine brushes off the officer because of the scolding—but then learns why the Afghan commander was so harsh. The Afghan officer’s soldiers had been stealing food for their families. The officer was mad that the hungry soldiers hadn’t asked him for help before breaking the law.
The next morning, the Afghan officer skips a scheduled meeting—and it’s clear the Marine blew it. Because the Marine didn’t take the time to listen and practice empathy, or “perspective-taking,” he loses his local partner.
To teach imagination—”characterizing,” in the military’s parlance—the manual asks trainees to break into two groups and mull different patrol scenarios.
The first team observes four young men outside a local park and, separately, spots an elderly man in the park staring past a main road. Several minutes later, two men leave a teashop—and the four youths in the park walk away. A minute after that, the patrol discovers debris blocking the main road.
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Team two, patrolling at the same time but in a different location, heads toward the park when it notices two men sitting in a teashop, intently watching the patrol. After that, the second team notices two empty vehicles parked on an otherwise unoccupied cross-street intersecting the main road.
As the second patrol reaches the teashop, the two men walk away and leave behind a cardboard box.
The manual instructs the two groups to combine what they’ve observed—and write a story to explain all the details. The most plausible story is that all the suspicious characters in town are working together to plant a bomb on the main road.
To be clear, the sensemaking manual isn’t asking Marines to somehow evolve psychic powers. Rather, it encourages them to be mindful of their surroundings, trust their instincts and construct narratives to explain other people’s behavior.
Gary Klein, a research psychologist and consultant whose work inspired the Navy’s sensemaking project, told The Daily Beast he prefers to call the process “naturalistic decisionmaking.”
“I was worried about how this could be viewed in a sensational way with ‘spidey-sense’ or something that sounds like ESP or something paranormal,” Klein said. “That’s not what the military’s interested in. They’re interested in developing expertise and the core part of expertise is tests, knowledge and the ability to make sense of situations.”
“I’m very excited they found my work relevant,” Klein added.
Sensemaking is just one of the many programs the Navy funds in order to improve Marines’ “situational awareness,” Bob Freeman, a spokesman for the Office of Naval Research, told The Daily Beast. “We have a bunch of programs for helping Marines figure out situational awareness using virtual reality and things like that.”
Of all the approaches to situational awareness, sensemaking is potentially the quickest and most effective, according to Klein. A slower, more deliberate process risks being too slow on a fast-changing battlefield. “In a military context, there’s a term for people who go through that deliberate analysis,” Klein said, “and the term is casualties.”
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