OODA and Operant Conditioning

In the military and in most law enforcement agencies, acronyms, backronyms, and colloquial expressions are common place. So much so, that, unless you're steeped in their respective lexicons, you'll probably have a hard time understanding what's being communicated in such circles.

Here are a few acronymic phrases I've found to be particularly humorous (and devoid, too, of all profane and lude references):

Alice: All-purpose, Light-weight, Individual, Carrying Equipment.

5 Fingers of Death: the beef franks included with beans in some MREs (Meals Ready to Eat).

HANO: High Altitude, No Opening. Refers to a parachute jump, where the parachute fails to deploy. This usually results in a fatal outcome. (Really? You don't say?)

DONSA: Day of No Scheduled Activity.

Hurry up and Wait: an expression denoting extremely inefficient time management or planning, where a senior leader rushes a unit into a situation too fast, thus forcing that unit to wait. Such actions have a way of icing a unit, which can affect significantly unit morale and performance.

An acronym I use often in my own training and practice of situational awareness is OODA. Developed by Col. John Boyd of the United States Air Force, OODA can serve as a general guide to threat identification, assessment, and response.

OODA: Observe --> Orient --> Decide --> Act.

Even though it's pretty self-descriptive (which is probably the reason it's found such universal appeal and use), here's how it works:

When something threatening occurs...

  1. You begin by Observing what's happening (you note who and what's involved, where they are, in what direction they're moving, their apparent mental state/s, what resources they appear to have, etc.). You note (i.e., Observe) also your own emotional and physical responses to what's happening.

  2. Based on such observations, you Orient yourself to the situation (you recalibrate your positions of readiness; you assess your capabilities, liabilities, and available resources; and you identify the responsive/reactive options you have).

  3. Then, you weigh your options and Decide what action you'll take.

  4. And then, you take Action.

Since OODA operates like a loop, once you Act, you loop back around to Observe and begin the whole process all over again. Typically, this is done over and over until the threat's been neutralized.

In many military operations and personal self-defense/life-preservation situations, OODA can be a very effective tool.

But what if you don't have the time to Orient yourself? In such instances, OODA could be a hindrance (or even worse)—like, when someone jumps you out of nowhere. In such instances, OODA will be of little help because the encounter may end (with your death or serious injury) before you ever get to the Decide element. That's why I consider it critical to create for yourself situational responses that are "operantly conditioned."

Operant Conditioning

Operantly conditioned behavior occurs when, under certain stimuli, the Orient and Decide elements of the OODA model are bypassed. Well, they're not technically bypassed, they've just been thought (and trained) through previously. That, coupled with keeping your wits about you (through situational awareness), can enable you to Act the moment you Observe (or sense) something threatening or off kilter. In all cases, though, the action is initiated cognitively (via top-down thinking).

Respondent behavior, on the other hand, is that where sensory input instinctually and neurologically stimulates pre-congnative Action. It's initiated reflexively (bottom-up), NOT cognitively (top down).

While operant behavior is NOT precognitive, through long-term, focussed conditioning, Actions in response to stimuli (Observations) can begin to approach respondent behavior. This occurs when responses become almost reflexive, even flinch-like. It can become even more so when your pre-programmed responses to various stimuli are combined with (or tacked on to) natural, reflexive actions. I have a handful of operantly conditioned first-responses, which I train over and over and over again. These first responses include sprinting, executing two reflexive cover moves, disbursing pepper gel, flinging a basic palm strike to the face, and throwing a basic knee strike to the groin. They're my first-responses to encountering (i.e., Observing) a threatening situation that's just forced itself upon me. Without them, I'd be a sitting duck. So would any of us, for that matter—even the most skilled fighters and martial artists among us.

It may be extremely cool that you can throw a near vertical side kick in the dojo; but if you don't have the time to execute it (because you're still stuck in the Orientation part of the OODA loop), what good will it do you? The same would be true if you're a shooter. Sure, once the gun's in your hand, you may (with world class speed and precision) be able to point, aim, and fire off several rounds into the center mass of your attacker; but...if you're still trying to Orient to what's taking place, your hand may still be empty at moment your attacker's knife begins to break the plain of your chest or neck.

It's great to have good fighting and shooting skills. To use them, though (at least, in some instances), you'll need to develop a few operantly conditioned responses that deal with a threat effectively enough to enable you to access those skills.

Take care, God bless, and stay safe out there...



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