We’ve all heard about the OODA loop. But what exactly is it? In very simple terms, it’s how you react to a stimulus. While we most often hear the term when associated with offensive and defensive actions, you engage your OODA loop many, many times a day. So, what does OODA loops stand for?
There it is. Very simple looking on the surface. But when you get into it, there is so much more to it. Colonel John Boyd coined the term in the 1950’s. He was a fighter pilot and flight group commander that began to study human reactions. He used the findings to improve his pilots combat effectiveness. We can learn from these same lessons today.
The average time for a human to react to a known stimulus is 228 milliseconds. Notice the keywords in that sentence, known stimulus. Humans process nearly 80 percent of all stimulus through our sense of sight. That is why the first O is for observe. When you consider that a visual stimulus only takes between 20-40 milliseconds to reach your brain, it looks like we’re reacting pretty slow. Compared to an audible stimulus it is.
We respond faster to an audible stimulus than to a visual one because it reaches our brains in 8-10 milliseconds. That’s two to five times faster than a visual stimulus. It gets even more complicated. The OODA loop theory isn’t a simple static one dimensional abstract portrayed by a circle with the decision-making process laid out around it. In reality, it consists of four overlapping individual loops.
Think of each phase of the OODA loop as the face of a stopwatch. There are four of these that are overlapping one another in the recognized order. When you first observe the stimulus, that clock starts running. If left uninterrupted the observe loop will make it to the orient loop and that clock will start running. Remember, this is all happening in milliseconds. The observe loop will then trigger the orient loop and on to the act.
What happens when your observe clock is reset? Think of it like this, you’re at an ATM and suddenly notice someone has walked into your personal space. Your observe clock is ticking. Then suddenly there is a new visual stimulus when your visitor pulls a gun. Your observe clock has just been reset before your orient clock ever started. Your visitor is one step ahead of you in the decide phase.
Now you’re probably saying, great, there’s no way to get ahead of this. That’s where you’re wrong. You can just as easily reset the bad guys clock as he can yours. You can move quickly, shout, push him away. This means you’ve ran through your OODA loop already. You saw your visitor, oriented to or away from him, decided what you were going to do, and acted. How is that possible if he’s reset my clock? Simple. A lot has to do with your reaction, and this is where your training and mindset comes into play.
There are two types of stimulus, known and unknown. Our response time to a known stimulus will always be faster than to an unknown one. This is where training and situational awareness comes into play. You’ll have the edge in an encounter by being aware of what’s going on around you and always having some sort of plan.
In most cases we’ll be reacting to an unknown stimulus. You’ll not know when or where you’ll be threatened. By keeping yourself in a mental state of readiness to react, you can reinforce your OODA loop. This means increasing your situational awareness and remaining on a state of readiness. Many people will feel that they shouldn’t have to live that way. We must modify our behavior to match the reality of the situation, not the other way around.
It’s often said humans have two responses to a threat, fight or flight. This is referred to as the fight or flight syndrome. But there is a third, freeze. Many, many people will simply freeze. This is a clear indication that their OODA loop is either not processing or has been interrupted in a severe manner. You must make the decision to process what’s happening and force yourself through if this is the case.
Think of a horror movie where the villain comes out with a chainsaw and some young woman sees it then freezes in place. Seeing someone coming at you with a chainsaw is a damn good reason to be shocked but freezing in place isn’t going to improve the outcome. The young woman usually has already gone through two phases of the loop, she observed the threat and oriented towards it. Then this is where a lot of people freeze.
You have to make the decision to work through the rest of the loop, decide what you’re going to do, and do it! In a lot of cases, anything is better than nothing. We’ve all heard the saying, get off the X. Making a move can be the difference between life and death sometimes. Even if you don’t act in a manner to directly defend your life like fighting back, simply putting distance between you and the aggressor is a good start. Remember that in a lethal encounter, distance is your friend.
You engage your OODA multiple times a day, every day. From your cell phone ringing to sitting at a red light, these are examples of utilizing the OODA loop. Both of these examples are known stimulus. When your phone rings, you know what it is and the response is nearly automatic. Unless of course you see your annoying cousin’s name on the screen and decide to pass him to voicemail. The same goes for a red light. When it turns green, your response is automatic.
The reason you respond instinctively to these stimuli is that they are practiced over and over. Also, there are only a couple of responses to them. Our response to an unknown stimulus can be up to 30% slower than to a known. If you add in multiple options of how to react, it’s slowed even further. Since there is an infinite number of potential stimulus that you may have to react to in a defensive situation, there are likewise an infinite number of reactions. We need to narrow these responses down to improve our response time.
There has been a lot of study into the use of visualization with athletes to improve their response time or rather, their OODA loop. While it may sound like hocus pocus nonsense, it’s been proven to work. Visualization is not enough though because we also have to train. Combining these mental exercises with actual training can dramatically improve your reaction times.
The best thing you can do to improve your reaction time is remain situationally aware. Combine a higher level of situational awareness with visualizing how you will react. Practice those reactions and you decrease the amount of time to observe a threat, orient towards it, decide what to do, and act on that decision. Remember too, these are scientifically based realities. We can only do these things so fast. But it’s in our best interest to be able to do them as fast as we can. Like all things, speed comes with practice.
Perform your mental exercises. Get out and train. Just like when you first started learning to drive, it takes practice. I mention this again, practice and training, because it cannot be emphasized enough. One of the best investments you can make in your preparedness is quality training. Because unlike gear, you cannot simply use it. However, skills are perishable and can dull over time. So, continue to practice what you’re learned and be ready to engage your OODA loop in milliseconds.