The OODA Loop from a Different Perspective…

I have written here before about my use of podcasts to occupy my lengthy commute to and from work. Recently, I learned of the EmCrit podcast from a coworker. Although EmCrit is directed at the medical profession, I wanted to discuss a recent episode that deals directly with a topic that should be of interest to anyone that carries a gun. Indeed, over time, I have found that my profession and most of my hobbies seem to share many parallels.

The EmCrit podcast in question, Episode 171, is an audiovisual presentation by Scott D. Weingart, MD (host of the EmCrit Podcast) in which he discusses the OODA loop as it applies to trauma resuscitation. This particular podcast is an encore presentation of the keynote lecture that he presented at the SMACC-Chicago academic conference in 2015. Despite the podcast’s focus on improving trauma resuscitation, I think his explanation of the OODA loop and how to properly use it and understand it is one of the best I’ve ever seen or heard and that the episode should be of interest to anyone that is faced with making life altering decisions under pressure.

I should mention here that I have absolutely no affiliation with EmCrit other than being a relatively new listener to the podcast and that I have no idea whatsoever what Dr. Weingart’s views on firearms or self-defense are…

Most, if not all, readers of this blog will be familiar with Air Force Colonel John Boyd’s OODA loop, even if only at a cursory level. And in truth, most discussions of the OODA loop rarely progress beyond the ubiquitous “Observe, Orient, Decide, Act” description of the mnemonic… in his presentation, Dr. Weingart offers a much better overview of the subject.

Dr. Weingart begins his presentation by explaining the difference between System I and System II thinking. A much more in depth examination of this can be found in Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” But in short, Dr. Weingart explains that System I is “fast, automatic, impulsive, emotional, and unconscious.” In contrast, System II thinking is “slow, reflective, deliberative, rational, and conscious.” While most protocols are developed through System II thinking, Dr. Weingart posits that System II thinking fails at many intuitive yet complex processes such as his examples of baking bread and the game of chess. In fact, protocols often fail and inhibit performance even when the protocols are developed by experts! Instead, his example tasks are best accomplished by experts employing dynamic System I thinking rather than by strict adherence to a recipe when baking bread or attempting to play chess against a master using an algorithm. Indeed, the only reason that computers can effectively play chess is because of the innate processing capability that allows the machine to consider and contrast all of the possible permutations rapidly. In effect and outward appearance, is this process really any different than an expert with years of experience making rapid intuitive judgments based on that experience?

As I listened to Dr. Weingart’s lecture, the material resonated with me not only in terms of how one should approach emergency medicine but also how one should deal with violent conflicts. It is no surprise that Boyd’s OODA loop and terms such as “get off the X” were used by Dr. Weingart. Just as in trauma resuscitation, violent conflicts require split second decisions with life altering consequences that are the currency of the trade.

As his presentation progresses, Dr. Weingart gives a detailed explanation of the actual complexity of Boyd’s OODA loop, with an analysis of how to really use the various feedback pathways of the loop to resolve problems.


OODA.Boyd.svg


A brief synopsis of the most important part of Dr. Weingart’s presentation would be that you must look for the appropriate cues, you have to know what to look for in order to see it, you can’t see what you don’t know, and that understanding all of the above through direct experience leads to a correct orientation. Conversely, seeing the wrong thing or failing to see the right thing at the right time will lead to an incomplete or incorrect orientation. The correct orientation to the situation allows one to jump straight to action, since the decision has already been made based on the initial observation. Thus, orientation is the fundamental cornerstone of the OODA loop. While Boyd referred to this as “Implicit Guidance and Control,” Dr. Weingart explains it succinctly as “Orient to Act!”

One’s ability to correctly orient to a situation is directly related to the filters through which they interact with the world. I am convinced that this is why some people cannot understand the importance of self-protection and the validity of gun ownership. If they’ve never had their beliefs and ideals challenged by reality or experience, then they lack the proper mental and emotional framework to even comprehend our arguments. Dr. Weingart discusses the impact of experience on orientation by drawing on Boyd’s own list of “Mental Models for a Military Orientation.” The list is surprisingly diverse and comprehensive. One famous quote immediately comes to mind as another relevant and classic example…

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. – Robert A. Heinlein

Dr. Weingart goes on to stress the importance of action instead of hesitation when time is critical or the situation is not necessarily clear. In other words, “get off the X!” Ultimately, in order to win, you have to work through your OODA loop faster than your opponent works through his, whether the grim reaper is across from you in a trauma bay or in a dark alley. In every conflict, there are at least two loops, yours and your opponent’s! Bluntly, your imperative is to screw up his orientation before he can screw up yours.

He continues by discussing the use of the OODA loop for QA/QI purposes. What went wrong, and why? How can a similar situation be dealt with better in the future? This process allows for a plan for failure. Plan for failure to avoid failure!

Finally, Dr. Weingart advocated that when you have absolutely no idea what is going on, that is the proper time to revert to System II thinking in order to attempt to solve the problem. The other correct application of System II thinking is when novices are faced with complex situations but lack the requisite experience to navigate by intuition based on a correct orientation.

There is also benefit in reviewing prior cases so that novices can be exposed to the expert’s decision making process during previous encounters. While this takes many forms in medical education, for our studies here at the blog, perhaps we can learn from those that have actually been involved in violent encounters.  For instance, if you carry a gun and you’ve never listened to Jared Reston speak about his multiple gunfights, you’re missing out. He has been interviewed twice on Ballistic Radio (find those episodes here and here) and has also been featured on the Primary & Secondary ModCast.


I hope I’ve adequately explained why EmCrit 171 is a must listen and watch podcast for our readers, no matter your profession or avocation, but what is the big picture and how do we apply the content?

If you carry a gun, training and practice form the framework and lens through which you are going to observe and orient when faced with a lethal encounter requiring an immediate response. Train with as many vetted instructors as you can in as many disciplines as you can. Take different classes that focus on different aspects of self-defense. I don’t know who first said it, so I will attribute the following quote to Rob Morse of the Polite Society Podcast where I first heard him say, “Don’t practice until you get it right, practice until you never get it wrong.” When your gun malfunctions in the middle of a fight, make the resolution of the problem a practiced intuitive response instead of a fatal fumble. Practice safe and efficient gun handling so that it becomes automatic and reflexive. Take a legitimate force on force class to learn how to respond to, or better yet, avoid violent encounters. Prepare the necessary mental framework to correctly  and constantly orient to dynamic situations as they evolve. Just because you draw your gun doesn’t necessarily translate to an absolute need to fire it. Know not only how to draw your gun, but also why and when to draw your gun. Observe your surroundings correctly so that you can orient directly to action when needed. Study earlier gunfights and gunfighters to learn from their success and failures. (Check out our Recommended Books link for some relevant suggestions.) Be alert, aware, and decisive. Replace panic with purpose. Remember, “Specialization is for insects.”


Dr. Weingart mentioned two specific books in his presentation. I’ve only read the first so far, but both are shown below with links to our Amazon Affiliate store. If you intend to purchase them, we would ask that you do so through the links provided. We appreciate your support!

As always, thanks for reading. We welcome your comments and questions below.

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4 thoughts on “The OODA Loop from a Different Perspective…

  1. Nice. I’ve often thought of the OODA loop cycle as the, “glycolysis,” of the situational awareness algorithms. Meaning that, you can draw it graphically, and make kids memorize it, but it doesn’t really work that way. It’s probably better depicted, graphically, by a Jackson Pollack painting.

    Liked by 1 person

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