Orientation — not what it seems

Once, while musing on the essence of things, Boyd noted that:

Orientation is the Schwerpunkt. It shapes the way we interact with the environment—hence orientation shapes the way we observe, the way we decide, the way we act. In this sense, Orientation shapes the character of present observation-orientation-decision-action loops—while these present loops shape the character of future orientation. Implication: We need to create mental images, views, or impressions, hence patterns that match with activity of world, and we need to deny adversary the possibility of uncovering or discerning patterns that match our activity, or other aspects of reality in the world. Organic Design, 16

In other words, conflict is a game of dueling orientations, where we try to maintain a more accurate model of unfolding circumstances than the other players’. We don’t leave this to chance:  ” … and we need to deny adversary the possibility of uncovering or discerning patterns that match our activity, or other aspects of reality in the world.” Boyd suggested many ways to do this, including camouflage, concealment, security, deception, and most powerful of all, ambiguity particularly by operating inside adversary’s OODA loops.

If you’re going to play this game, you need to develop a deep understanding of the process of orientation. It isn’t as simple as “we see the external world, understand it, and model what we know.”  For one thing, is there an external world? Boyd didn’t address this question, although I suspect his answer might have been “Suppose there isn’t. What difference would it make?”

One thing for sure, we don’t see it in any objective sense. What happens is that photons (in the case of sight) impinge on our retinas, generating patterns of electro-chemical impulses to the brain.  The brain’s job is to integrate these patterns into all the other stuff going on up there and periodically send signals down the motor neurons. To put this in perspective, our brains contain something like the same number of neurons as stars in the Milky Way, 80 – 100 billion, and each neuron in the brain makes thousands of connections. If you multiply all this out, there are more potential pathways than fundamental particles in the known universe. Somehow, amongst all of this, our mental models emerge.

It follows that what we “see” depends on what’s already going on up there, which is what Boyd tried to capture with the Orientation block. And all this processing takes time, which I suspect is the fundamental basis for operating inside the OODA loop.

Given this mental model of Orientation, what can we do with it? New research offers a couple of tidbits.

It turns out that most people’s brains make predictable mistakes, and if you know about these, you can exploit them. One set of mistakes comprises the familiar optical illusions. For example, here’s the well-known Müller-Lyer illusion:


A recent article in The Guardian shows how soccer goalies can exploit this illusion to increase their chances of blocking penalty kicks. I can’t think of a use for this illusion in any business I might engage in, but it might be something for you to file away.

A more useful illusion involves how people think of probabilities. Perhaps the best known of these is the “gambler’s fallacy,” that a streak of bad luck will soon reverse itself because, you know, these things even out.  Here’s a simple refutation:


It turns out, though, that lucky streaks do happen. There are two reasons why. The first reflects the fact that random events are inherently streaky. If you flip the proverbial fair coin 10 times, your chance of getting a regular alternation, say THTHTHTHTH, is 2 in 1024. Much more likely is some type of streak, like TTTHHTHHTH or HHHHHHTHTT or TTTTTTTTTT.

Casinos know this, so they set the payoff for TTTTTTTTTT to be quite high, but not quite high enough to offset the low odds of that particular streak (refer to the above picture).

Which brings us to another kind of streak.  A couple of months ago The Economist (paywall) reported that “Lucky streaks happen. But they are not the result of luck.”  The kind of streaks they’re talking about, though, involve special types of bets, like sports book and horse racing. In these cases, gamblers who won on their first two bets (probabilities .48 and .49, respectively) got a hot streak where the odds of their sixth bet paying off was an astounding .75.  The explanation was not that they had a hot hand but

as winners’ winning streaks increased in length they started choosing safer and safer odds, which led them to win more often, though less profitably.

In other words, they started betting on the favorites. This does not mean, by the way, that they started beating the house (refer to picture, above). Incidentally, the losers went the other way.  Their odds of winning went down (to .45) as they tried to make up their losses by taking riskier but potentially more lucrative bets.  They actually made the gambler’s fallacy worse.

This is very interesting because it may give you some competitive advantage.  It may help explain why, for example, once-innovative companies start to turn out low-risk and ultimately boring products. In other words, it may explain the migration from cheng/chi to cheng-only, opening up opportunities for new generations of competitors. Conversely, knowing that this tendency is there may help you avoid it in your own company.

6 thoughts on “Orientation — not what it seems

  1. Good discussion, and it’s apparent that the reason the US fails, and fails, and fails
    again at decisive resolution to these limited ongoing conflicts, is the reality
    that our “orientation: is skewed (or if you prefer “screwed”) by those in the background who treat the whole activity as a perpetual source of revenue and wealth creation.

  2. There’s a far more troubling implication in all of this.

    The difficulties encountered in the Korean War led to a set of reformers, like Gavin. The Vietnam War too produced a set of reformers. But look at the Iraq War and Afghanistan. They have managed to silence the reformers.

    All that one hears from the DoD is “give us more money”. The problem is, those wars were not lost because of inadequate money spent, lack of “high tech gadgets”, super-expensive weapons systems, etc. There are no more mavericks.

    That and the gambling stakes are now much, much higher. Has the US made the gambler’s fallacy worse? That’s the riddle.

    – Chris

  3. “They have managed to silence the reformers.” On the other hand, I believe that money talks, so in a way the “reformers” are talking, they just don’t look the same as the reformers in the other wars you mentioned.

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