As we likely all know by now in the industry, the OODA Loop is a catch-term and buzzword that so many use and few understand. We gloss over it, minimize it, dumb it down for the masses. Maybe that’s not necessarily a bad thing. However, it so often seems like the dumbing-down is done not to make it more accessible or understandable on a level to the uninitiated but because that’s really all the instructor understands about it. An inability to articulate so it becomes a forced over-simplification instead of one that has been streamlined due to a deep understanding of the concept itself.

So, due to this, I’ve decided this article will likely be somewhat unreadable (and therefore likely unread) to what the low-attention span and compartmentalization for surface-spewing that most these days seem to require. Complex – intentionally. Longer because I want to delve a little deeper.

So what is the “OODA Loop?” It is a cycle of human processing originally designed for combat operations that is now utilized almost everywhere – business, martial arts, learning, law enforcement, law, and everything under the sun. Boyd himself said, “…decision-making occurs in a recurring cycle of observe–orient–decide–act. An entity (whether an individual or an organization) that can process this cycle quickly, observing and reacting to unfolding events more rapidly than an opponent, can thereby “get inside” the opponent’s decision cycle and gain the advantage.”

Observe. Orient. Decide. Act. Seems simple enough. But where do these elements delve from? What shapes whether one is effective or ineffective? What dictates whether one is effective at one thing and yet ineffective at another? Or effective at one thing and ineffective at the same thing at a different time? Or similar-but-different scenarios that may draw entirely different outcomes? It’s one thing to understand the process itself, another entirely to understand how it works under real-time events. So. What goes into these 4 elements that decides whether they fail or succeed? Let’s go inside the loop:

OBSERVE: Unfolding events, scenarios & circumstances that trigger alarm, risk, threat, anxiety, conflict, danger, to processing information, learning new skills, assessing incoming stimuli. We’ll try and stay focused on the area this blog generally pertains to: risk, threat, danger, conflict, violence.

As “observe” generally insinuates the visual, this would included environmental stimuli (barricades/barriers, obstacles, escape routes, engagement range, angles, space, apertures, distractions, type of risk/threat/danger/conflict/violence, etc.) It would include the number of pertinent parties such as allies, dependents, opponents, tertiary parties, relevant agents to the outcome. It would include the spatial dynamic – on-foot, seated, in-car, on bike, etc. and including the sometimes neglected idea that it could asymmetrical in nature. Meaning the threat could be in a different spatial-dynamic than you, more than one (which can and does overload senses and processing-speed), a different species, hell, in a different environment. (online/surveillance/different country) if we’re looking at the macro.

It can include accessibility to pertinent tools to attack, defend, shield, distract, project, threaten – primary, secondary, tertiary. (weapons, tools themselves, identifiable tertiary options)

accessibility to pertinent tools (weapons, tools themselves, identifiable tertiary options), control of own emotions

ORIENT: This is the area where what I define as “perceptual filters” come into heavy play. ( ) Note that your hard- and soft-wiring can and does either increase your processing speed…or make it lag and stunt. What are perceptual filters?

1. Mission/Self-Perception: one’s grander purpose. Spirituality (religious, agnostic, atheist, spiritual), existential place/acceptance, fear-of-death, insecurity about the afterlife, peace with greater power, comfort with life-and-death cycle, etc.
2. Experience – macro=experience/experiences, micro=exposure: events and decisions in life that shape our way of looking at things and making future decisions
3. Nature – internal wiring, personality traits, personal values/beliefs/morals/internal wiring/personality/mindset *nature/nurture can tend to overlap and have influence on each other, negatively or positively, so as to be clear
4. Condition (mental/physical/emotional/psychological): long-term health/condition (mentally-ill, with disease or illness, disabled, gas-lighted), physical capability that gives confidence and knowing limits of self-performance,
5. Physiological State/Emotional/Mental: tired, angry, sad, happy, distracted. euphoric, bitter, drunk, high, stressed, aroused

6. Nurture – Parental grooming/influence, upbringing, familiar dynamic, learning from example, familial structure/familial dynamic, imparted lessons
7. Environment: habitat, neighborhood, micro cultures, influencers, surrounding people
8. Culture: rituals, superstitions, social norms & acceptances, taboos, practices
9. Age/Gender/Sex/Race/Economic Class: filters and their assessment can dramatically change whether from a woman’s perspective vs. a man’s, a black person vs. a white one, older vs. younger, poor vs. well-off
10. Education (training/by-proxy/self-learning) Learning from the experience of others, research, self-assessment, case-study, peer forums, data, grounded-alignment of own circumstance

Now, alllll these combine to make our responses to and assessment of wildly-changing, 3-dimensional, multi-dynamic circumstances very unique – and which is why most martial cookie-cutter approaches fail miserably under the limelight of reality.

These are the factors that combine to make rapid decisions on-the-fly to quickly-changing scenarios. They are unique to us – as our responses, therefore. We analyze, process, assess, deduct, and perceive things very, very differently, which is why the autopilot, mechanical, machine-like, technique-per-situation mentality of most traditional martial arts, static gun classes, self-defense regurgitators generally fails when understanding the deeper meaning of all this. (The surface-meaning is often sufficient when little price is paid, daily-testing isn’t omnipresent, environment is relaitvely safe and suburban, and risk is minimal or minute. If, for instance, experience and exposure are low, training is flawed, mission is undefined but environment is 95% uneventful, a moot point and likely irrelevant, right…)

DECIDE: Based on and influenced by our individual perceptual filters. We make decisions based on our internal database, generally. Previous similar experience, loops/deja-vus, influence from past successful decisions, incoming familiar changing information and dynamics, etc.

However, something to note and that I hear few people bring-up, is the influence our own personal biases have on situations, and this can lead to very bad decision-making and choices. Our biases often lead us down roads that may have worked one or multiple times before but might not here. Influence better-judgment. Default our response without proper-assessment. Give inappropriate response. What else unplanned-for can influence decision-making?

The influence of other persons or parties present. Fear and hesitation. Overload of stimuli. Unpreparedness. Newness of circumstance. Lack of confidence in one’s training. Too many options and the belief that there’s only one correct one. So what, other than the obvious, can help alleviate the potential of these? Well, coming to grips with the importance of these elements is a good start:

  1. Knowledge. Holistic, ongoing, continually-evolving.
  2. The willingness to accept being wrong and change.
  3. An understanding of one’s own biases that come from those personal perceptual filters we discussed above.
  4. The acknowledge that circumstances change, nothing is static, and uncertainty is uber-present.
  5. Mental flexibility.

Generally, the more impactful these factors are in keeping your own biases at-bay, the more they’ll have been worked-out prior to shit hitting the proverbial fan. In the midst of real-time stress, pressure, volatility is an awful times to realize that the “map is not the territory”, that your version of the world is not how the world actually is.

ACT: I have come to the hard-fought conclusion that the higher-percentage options and those that up the survival-quotient the greatest are those cultivated by and based on adaptability, critical-thinking, momentary/snap decision-making, and resilience. (developing that last one is an element for a different article altogether) Understanding there are no one-size-fits-all, singular-solution, “one right answer” outcomes and there are always more than one way to do a thing – and do it successfully, is another rarely discussed.

The diversity and specificity of “acts” is limitless so let’s return back to general human conflict-response, of which we’ve discussed thoroughly in a previous article, of where I’m going to plagiarize myself a little. ( )

Let’s break them up into soft-wired (learned, developed, cognitive, “by-design”) and hard-wired (innate, instinctive, evolutionary) first. We have the generally-accepted fight, flight, fright, or freeze that are over-quoted so there’s absolutely no point in beating a dead-horse. But we also have those below, whether done consciously or sub-consciously, and noting that these can be used physically, verbally, or psychologically as well to serve different purposes:

  1. Posturing/projection.
  2. Submission.
  3. Avoidance/Evasion. It is NOT the same as flight/run/escape.
  4. Negotiate/Mitigate. Different than submit in that you’re actively attempting to find resolution mid-conflict.
  5. Deflect/Distract.
  6. Plea for Assistance.
  7. Attack. Going on the offensive. (verbal or physical altercation)

As we have broken them up into both innate and learned response and applied them to both verbal and physical response, we can also broaden this further, based on time. What about delving into the sliding scale of physical-altercation types? Are there others that show themselves if we’re ambushed? Given no downtime to prep or ready ourselves? No signs of impending danger, at least that we caught prior? While these are generally instinctive and evolutionary, they can also “act” as a trigger to get to the orient stage of the cycle and access training/fight capability/internal resilience. On that point, sometimes the orient stage jumps directly to the act stage, that instinctive/evolutionary response (or what I call “innate survival-skill mechanisms”, system 1) that keeps us alive or functional just long-enough to access training/mindset/capability (system 2)…

  1. Turtling.
  2. Flinching.
  3. Covering.

How about ongoing stress? A looming threat or upcoming unavoidable confrontation? Enemies who pressure you over time? We can add a couple more to the above, as well. Remember that “acting” can be done prior to an event, as can the entire cycle itself. Think of a series of interlocking cycles that lead to proper preparation, understanding, and foresight of events to come and culminating in successful performance of a/the final or highest-order event.

  1. Hyper-vigilance. (panic, confusion, ultra-aggression and overkill regarding daily reactions, constantly tuned-in and jacked-up) It’s worth mentioning that hyper-vigilance and freezing are often coupled together in the industry but medically they are 2 VERY different sides of human trauma and PTSD, as most professionals will attest to.
  2. Informing. Educating oneself on fear, adrenaline, the enemy, the coming event. Planning tactics, re-evaluating options, reconnaissance. Studying the opponent and/or self. Anticipation of outcomes. Psychological warfare.
  3. Activate. Breathing, meditating, and the like to calm oneself, change state, frame the stress in a different way, and come to terms with the process-stress.

Note that inaction, or not acting, is itself an action, whether proactive (strategic/tactical) or reactive (hyper-vigilance/fear causing inaction).

Note also that scenarios are 3-dimensional, organic, and fluid. So the acting and decision stages may sometimes be altered by changing stimuli, greater information coming to light, alternative options presenting themselves, or outside influence. They then return to the observe/orient phases to recalibrate best-possible avenues/solutions as change presents.

Now, is all this necessary to share with students? No. But, returning to the fifth-stage of learning cycle (understanding/articulation/making simplicity out of complexity), I like to test myself to my capability of sharing important ideas is coherent and cognizant.

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