O.O.D.A. Loop and Operant Conditioning

john boyd
John Boyd during the Korean War

O.O.D.A. Loop is an acronym used to explain the process that we use when responding to some type of stimulus. The model was formulated by Col. John Boyd in the 1950’s. Col. Boyd was a fighter pilot in the Korean War. He used this concept to train the pilots under him. The training resulted in a 10:1 kill ratio. Col. Boyd believed that even at a disadvantage, a competent pilot could overcome his opponent by attacking the mental process or state of mind. [1] This post is the light version of the O.O.D.A Loop explanation.

This is a powerful tool that we can use in both phase 1 and 2 of an attack, to give us the advantage to overcome our attacker. O.O.D.A stands for observe, orient, decide, act. We go through this process constantly everyday. For example, you notice your mouth is dry and would like something to drink. You think about what your options are: water, juice, cola, etc. Ultimately, you decide to get juice. Of course, this is a very basic example but I’m sure you get the point. Let’s break down each letter of O.O.D.A.

Observe – Although we process most of the information we come in contact with using our sight, in this context, observation is the use of all senses. For example, you are standing at the bar and you feel your pants move near your back pocket. You “observed” through feeling (which is actually faster than sight in action vs reaction, but that is for a later post). There are a couple of issues during the observe phase that we will run into. We will most likely only observe a portion of the information, which may not even be accurate and/or we are so overwhelmed by the amount of information we are receiving we can not distinguish what is important information. Think of ruse by a mugger (What time is it? Got a cigarette? etc.), then multiple blows coming from behind from another individual.

Orient – This is not actually orienting your body to the threat but orienting your mind to what you have observed or what just happened/is happening. Basically, it’s wrapping your mind around the situation. Col. Boyd’s model takes several other factors into consideration such as, cultural heritage, past experiences, analysis and synthesis, but we don’t need to go into that right now. Just understand that there are several factors that influence how you perceive what is going on. It is important to note that there are two filters that will affect your ability to orient: emotional filter and denial. The emotional filter is something like, “How can this happen to me? It’s my birthday.” or “Please don’t let this happen to my family.” Denial is denying that anything is happening or not accepting it. As you can imagine, neither of these filters will end well if you are stuck in them during an attack. Another issue in this stage is asking why? Even if you have the answer, it won’t help you during the attack. This happens to people with very little or no training. It has been proved that participating in good scenario based training prior to real assaults will keep you from being disoriented. [2]

Decide – In this stage, you are flipping through your Rolodex of options. You should be aware of what is called Hick’s Law. At the basic level, Hick’s Law states the more options you have, the longer it will take you to decide on one. At this stage it’s important to understand that there is no perfect choice. Even if it seems there is. Remember, we typically only have a piece of the accurate information. We have to go with the best possible option.

Act – You have decided on an action and now you must put it into play. The single most important piece of information is that you are being attacked and you must act. It’s important to note that this isn’t an exact science. You are testing your hypothesis and must constantly adapt and rearrange your model as the information changes.


In self-defense, there is a process that can be trained to bypass the middle steps (orient, decide). This is called operant conditioning (OC). The premise of operant conditioning is pretty simple, “a stimulus is paired with a response.” [3] Simply put, when A happens, respond with B. To train for operant conditioning, you must train until the onset of the stimulus is matched immediately with the response without thinking. The response should be simple with many uses. It would be impossible to train to use OC for multiple techniques. That would involve you still using the middle two steps to orient yourself to the type of attack, then deciding which technique to use.

How does this fit into self-defense? By keeping your attacker inside of the his observe/orient stage, he will not be able to keep up with you. Beware, this works for the bad guys too, and they know it. They may not know what it is called, but they know if they keep attacking, it usually stops you from countering or resisting.

Disrupting the O.O.D.A. Loop is not just physical through attacking. It can also be done through other means such as verbiage. When I was training Marines in weapon disarming techniques, I would give one of the Marines a training pistol and tell him to set up how they would rob me at gun point. Sometimes the Marine would hold the gun to my face; sometimes to the back of my head. Either way, they would demand money. My first action is to  say, “All I have is tomato juice!” The student had the same reaction every time, a look of bewilderment. It was in that pause that I executed the technique to disarm him, which again disrupted his loop. That’s how I introduced O.O.D.A. Loop to my students.

The idea of disrupting the O.O.D.A. Loop can carry into many areas. Using different techniques or strikes quickly in sequential order can force your attacker to always be “playing catch up” (overwhelming the attacker with information). By saying something completely out of the ordinary or unexpected, it can cause a momentary pause while the attacker is trying to orient his mind to what was just “observed.” A would-be attacker may ask you a series of questions to keep resetting your loop until he can get into a better attack position. Also, by creating an unexpected action the loop can be disrupted. For example, you are waiting for the bus and a man walks up asking for the time. As you look at your watch he grabs your arm aggressively. Before he can say anything, your operant conditioning kicks in and you palm heel strike him under his chin. If he is not expecting you to respond this way, his loop will be disrupted. Same thing for you, if you were expecting a knock out and the palm heel doesn’t phase him.

As you can see, understanding and training how to disrupt someone’s loop and training for operant conditioning can be very useful. It is equally important to train to work through having your loop disrupted to break the freeze. All in all, the goal is quite simple. Get inside the other person’s loop and stay there. Like I said earlier, this is a light version of Boyd’s O.O.D.A Loop. If you would like more information on this, The Art of Maniless wrote a really good in-depth article on Boyd’s O.O.D.A Loop called, The Tao of Boyd: How to Master the O.O.D.A Loop. I definitely recommend it.

1. Tracy A. Hightower Boyd’s O.O.D.A Loop and How We Use It, http://www.tacticalresponse.com/d/node/226

2. Ken J. Good Got a Second? Boyd’s Cycle – OODA Cycle, Appendix 9, Gavin De Becker, Tom Taylor, Jeff Marquart Just Two Seconds, The Gavin de Becker Center for the Study and Reduction of Violence, 595

3. Rory Miller Facing Violence ( Wolfeboro, N.H.: YMAA Pub 2011), 97

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