Understanding the OODA Loop

in self defense scenarios

By Kjell Rosenberg MD 

Colonel Boyd’s OODA loop is an important piece of the self-defense puzzle. It describes the natural process we all go through when faced with a stimulus of any kind in every situation. OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act and can be thought of, in what I refer to, as microcosmic or macrocosmic context.

Let’s first define the loop. 

Observe:  A stimulus has caught my attention. 

Orient: Interpret the stimulus. 

Decide:  What should I do about the stimulus? 

Act:  Perform an action to create the best outcome of an interaction with the stimulus (take action in response to the stimulus… not necessarily the best action. Some people do really stupid stuff when they get to the act portion) 

A single macrocosmic loop can feature multiple microcosmic loops.  For example, in his book Leadership and Training for the Fight, Paul Howe talks about a macrocosmic OODA loop of a military force Observing the enemy, Orienting their own forces, Deciding on a tactic, and Acting out the plan.  Within this Loop many individual OODA loops are also conducted.  Observe a group of people, Orient to their status as enemy combatants, Decide to report your observation, Act to report your reconnaissance.  Observe your new orders, Orient to their meaning, Decide to follow them, Start maneuvers.  (The example he used is: “orient” literally moving troops to be ready for “act” when the “deciding” is done) 

On a more personal note an OODA loop may look like this; Observe a stimulus.  The stimulus is another person.  Orient to the fact that (something about) the person appears to be a threat to you.  Decide to defend yourself.  Act to draw your firearm or retreat.   

The OODA loop does not exist in a vacuum though.  There are many factors that affect the way your loop functions.  These include but are not limited to: 

Situational Awareness:  How early can I start my loop?  The sooner the better, because it gives me more time to focus on Orient, Decide, and Act.   

Mind Set:  What have I conditioned my mind to do?  Run?  Fight?  Surrender?  Am I already in Cooper’s mind set condition orange or red?  Having a mindset of action can decrease the length of time you spend in Orient and Decide. 

Mastery of material related to the stimulus and action:  Am I prepared for this exact context?  This includes acceptance, novelty, and pre-event learning. This encompasses all the other modifiers but is noteworthy because mastery can shave valuable time from every step of the loop. 

Acceptance that the stimulus can occur: Can I skip the step of thinking, “I can’t believe this is happening” which occurs during Orient if my mind is unprepared for the novel stimulus? No I must take the time to accept it during the event which can slow my response to the point I fail to Act altogether. If I’ve accepted the fact that a bad thing of this nature can occur to me it will decrease the time I spend in Orient and Decide and could make the difference in my survival.

Novelty:  Have I encountered this stimulus before in any way?  Things that are novel take us longer to process thereby increasing time spent in Orient and Decide. 

Pre-event learning:  Have you studied or trained for this context?  Similarly, to Novelty, Pre-event learning decreases mainly Orient and Decide, but also improves your Act response time. 

Reactionary Gap:  How much time do you have to perform your Act based on how close and/or fast the attacker is?  Most people take at least 0.25 seconds just to cycle a reactionary OODA loop.  That doesn’t include the time it takes to actually perform your chosen action.   

Automaticity:  Do I have “over-learned” motor skills to deal with the threat such as martial arts or firearms training? 

Similarly, strategies to upset or restart the opponent’s OODA loop are beneficial to us as they can keep the enemy off balance, increase their time in the loop and therefore decrease the number of actions they can perform per unit of time.  The thing about violent criminal actors is that they often already have a fair amount of real-world training for what they intend to do to you.  You are already starting from a counter ambush position which makes it that much more vital for you to do everything you can to optimize your loop. 

Let’s look at how the OODA loop works in a real scenario: 

Your wife pulls up to a gas pump and you hop out of the passenger side to begin pumping gas.  On the opposite side of the pump a car pulls up, but is not in a good position to use the pump.  From the passenger side a man exits and begins walking toward you.  When the man gets to the pump between you he starts to say somethingbut you point at him and in a firm voice say, “nope.”  During this time, you have subtly staged your hands to draw and fire your handgun if necessary.  The man turns to walk away.   

This is an actual scenario that happened to me less than a week ago outside of Louisville on my way to take Establishing a Dominance Paradigm with Tom Givens, Dr. William Aprill, and Craig Douglas.  The story gets better, but we will come back to it. 

Let’s first break it down sentence by sentence and apply the loop to it.   

Your wife pulls up to a gas pump and you hop out of the passenger side to begin pumping gas.  On the opposite side of the pump a car pulls up but not in a good position to use the pump.  

What I have done there is OBSERVE a stimulus and I have immediately begun to process it in the step called ORIENT.  Our brains do this automatically.  I know that the car cannot pump gas from its location but the facility is created for that purpose.  Ergo, the man is not here for the intended purpose.  Red Flag!  But parking strangely is not unheard of–and may have an innocent explanation.  It does, however,, deserve attention.  I have now moved into condition Orange.  The passenger gets out instead of the driver.  This is also atypical, but since I had just done the same thing, I have to admit that there are innocent reasons for that as well.  BUT there are now two abnormal events in the context of the normal use of this location.  In the context of a transitional space he now has my full attention.  I am already into “DECIDE” and have decided that a third red flag will result in an action. 

 From the passenger side a man exits and begins walking toward you.  When the man gets to the pump between you 

At this point I am sure he intends to approach me, the third Red Flag has just been thrown, and my predetermined ACT is processed from thought to reality. 

…he starts to say somethingbut you point at him and in a firm voice say, “nope.”  During this time, you have subtly staged your hands to draw and fire your handgun if necessary.   

At this point the OODA loop starts again as I OBSERVE him turn around ORIENT that the threat level has decreased but not gone away completely DECIDE that if he comes back toward me the fight will start and ACT to remain vigilant. 

The man turns to walk away.  He crosses the street to a strip mall.  After another minute, my gas is finished pumping and the man is gone.  I go into the shop to get road trip snacks since I mistakenly only brought healthy snacks from home. 

As I am walking out a young man pushes hurriedly past me going into the store and I feel a text notification as my phone vibrates in my pocket.  I walk out to the car which my wife has backed into a spot near the  front door of the shop.  I get in and she says, “did you see my text?”  At which point, I removed my phone and checked it:  Car parked out here not getting gas.  Windows blacked out.  One person entered back of building.  Driver just went in front. 

The situation: a second car pulled up and parked between the pumps and the shop but not in a parking spot.  Two men exit and hurriedly enter the shop one in back door one in front.  My wife noticed this and it immediately set off her alarms and she communicated this to me.  In fact, the first car had also returned and the man from the first part of the story was “interviewing” another driver. 

I tell her, “Lets get out of here.” And we leave.  I have no idea what follows but I don’t need to.  Did we narrowly miss a robbery or just two guys in a hurry to get snacks and a toilet break?  I don’t know.  I don’t care.  It’s a win for us because we are safely on our way with no injuries and no legal consequences. 

See if you can identify the red flags I identified and how the stimulus was processed by my wife and me in terms of the OODA loop from the time I went into the store until we drove away. 

Now let’s talk about the factors that affected my OODA loop in the first scenario. 

Situational Awareness:  Knowing that I was in a transitional space, I was paying very close attention to everything around me.   

Mind Set:  I have conditioned my mind that I will not allow my loved ones to be victimized by violent crime.  My situational awareness allowed me to put myself into a condition orange and then into red as necessary. 

Mastery of material related to the stimulus and action:  I have practiced paying attention, recognizing pre-attack indicators, and responses to this and similar stimuli so my mastery level may not be as high as it could be but I have begun the path toward mastery. 

Acceptance that the stimulus can occur : Clearly, I was ready for the possibility that this man might attack me once he worked his way close enough to be inside my reactionary gap. 

Novelty:  I have read about, watched videos of, and done scenarios involving this type of attack.  While that is not exactly the same as experiencing a real event, participating in these learning experiences had removed the novelty of the event. 

Pre-event learning:  I have learned how to deal with the stimulus in this context by removing the novelty and training with experts who have given me advice on how to handle the situation. 

Reactionary Gap:  I know how close I can allow the attacker to get before my response becomes limited.  That’s why I chose to cut him off greater than 3 yards from me. 

Automaticity:  I have hundreds of thousands of repetitions drawing and firing my firearm.  Thousands of repetitions doing it under stress.  And hundreds of repetitions doing it while being attacked in training environments. 

If something had gone down would I have won?  I certainly plan to.  I’ve done the work and I have recency of skills practice.  I have set my mind to dominate the situation.  There are always unforeseen factors and dumb luck to contend with but the better you are, the luckier you will be. 

To finish up the discussion we need to address concepts that can disrupt your opponent’s OODA loop.  It is very likely that they are already on the Act phase of their first loop when you encounter them.  The have already observed you and oriented to you as prey.  They have decided to attack you and are now acting that out.  They already have a series of predetermined if/then statements worked out in their head.  “If he gives me the wallet then I will…  take it and leave OR ask for his keys OR carjack him and take his wife with me” You have no idea what the ultimate outcome will be if you let him decide it.  So, interrupt the loop. 

Interruption of the loop can be done at each stage.  Add additional information that the attacker must process, let him observe you notice them, “I see you coming.”  Make him re-orient you as a non-prey “This may be harder than I thought.”  Interrupt their kinetic attack by getting the first accurate hits on target.  This stuff has to be learned and practiced.  If you try to make it up on the spot, it will be too novel for you to execute well.  If you haven’t practiced drawing from concealment, you aren’t going to do it well.  One only has to look back as far as the recent church shooting in White Settlement, Texas to see the difference in results from a fumbled draw and a practiced one.   

There are any number of factors that can determine success and failure in a violent encounter” No,  but a few things remain constant.  There is good evidence that whoever gets the first accurate hit will win, that practicing motor skill sets improves performance, and that preparing mentally improves performance.  All of these things affect and are affected by the OODA Loop which is part of our wiring as humans. 

Kjell Rosenberg Copyright January 2020 

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