More physiology of “operating inside the OODA loop”

On page 132 of Patterns of Conflict, Boyd hails “operating inside the OODA loop” as the foundation of victory. Near the end of a long list of indignities one can inflict on one’s opponents via this device, he included “Generate uncertainty, confusion, disorder, panic, chaos … to shatter cohesion, produce paralysis and bring about collapse.” He was so attached to this outcome that he drew a box around it in the original typewritten version.

As he explains earlier in the presentation, the specific device for producing paralysis, disorder, panic, confusion, etc. is surprise and in particular, the mechanism of cheng / chi.  The Sun Tzu text discusses this phenomenon in Chapter 5 as one of the elements of shih, the general pattern of operations, and we can assume the idea itself predates this text, possibly by many centuries.

What makes cheng / chi work is the abrupt transition between the expected, cheng, and the unexpected chi. James Gimian and Barry Boyce base their exegesis of Sun Tzu, The Rules of Victory, on the power of this transition: Therefore, one skilled at battle, his shih is steep, his node is short. … shih is like drawing the crossbow. The node is like pulling the trigger. (p. 100).

As neurophysiology progresses, we’re beginning to learn why this works. The title of an article by in last weekend’s New York Times by Prof. Joseph LeDoux of NYU explains it all, “‘Run, Hide, Fight’ Is Not How Our Brains Work.” These are far too rational for the types of situations Boyd and Sun Tzu have in mind. Instead, it’s more like “freeze, flee, fight.”  The difference is that while your opponent is frozen, you can do things to them with impunity. It makes no difference how big they are, or how physically agile, or how smart, or what kinds of weapons they have. Useless, one and all.

LeDoux’s article summaries recent research that uncovers why this happens.  Deep within our brains, we have bodies of neural tissue called the “limbic system.” Prominent among these bodies is the amygdala, which (if you’re a real brain physiologist, please excuse the over simplification) scans incoming sensory data to see if it needs to trigger your sympathetic nervous system and initiate flight-or-flight responses, like if you see a snake. React now and identify it when it’s safer.

LeDoux explains:

If you are freezing [not able to move, not physically cold], you are less likely to be detected if the predator is far away, and if the predator is close by, you can postpone the attack (movement by the prey is a trigger for attack).

The freezing reaction is accompanied by a hormonal surge that helps mobilize your energy and focus your attention. While the hormonal and other physiological responses that accompany freezing are there for good reason, in highly stressful situations the secretions can be excessive and create impediments to making informed choices. …

In most of us, freezing will occur no matter what. It’s just a matter of how long it will last.

How to overcome this? LeDoux suggests that

If we could come to use the fact that we are freezing to trigger a reappraisal in a moment of danger, we might just be able to dampen the amygdala enough to accelerate our ability to shift into the action mode required for “run, hide, fight.” Even if this cut only a few seconds off our freezing, it might be the difference between life and death.

Unfortunately, depending on the type of conflict, you may not have a few seconds. Miyamoto Musashi, in the Book of Five Rings, points out that in sword fighting and by extension other martial arts, you have only fractions of seconds. And then there’s the problem that while you’re frozen in reappraisal, your opponent may spring another surprise.

Another possibility is meditation, to help you clear your mind, recognize the onset of the freezing response, and reappraise more quickly. Related to this is continual practice in similar situations, again to help you realize what’s happening and unfreeze more quickly. Thomas Clearly describes these practices in his work on the Japanese samurai culture, The Japanese Art of War, which was, incidentally, one of Boyd’s favorite books.

Boyd’s answer, which finds its roots in Sun Tau and the samurai, and is standard among most military organizations nowadays, was that you be the one doing the surprising — that is, keep the initiative. If, on the other hand, you find yourself on the “X,” your only hope is that your opponents botch the attack long enough for you to recover.

Fortunately, in business, competition moves much more slowly. Here the problem is accurate reappraisal, that is, keeping our orientation process firmly grounded in reality. The reason this is so hard is less well understood than the surprise mechanism, but may also involve the limbic system, in concert with the prefrontal cortex, which is believed to perform most of our conscious thinking. The predicament is wonderfully illustrated in the aphorism

Where the heart leads, the mind will follow.

Writing on The Next Web, Jory MacKay has a nice summary, “5 cognitive biases that are killing your decisions.” These can be thought of as diseases of orientation, including confirmation bias (which, if not uncorrected escalates as “incestuous amplification.”)

MacKay suggests that we can offset these biases by asking ourselves several hard questions, like “Are you following the group because it’s what you actually believe?” These are good suggestions. The problem is, though, that the same biases he mentions in the article also infect the process of answering these questions.

Most of us will never break free of our cognitive biases, probably because our limbic systems, our “hearts,” steer our minds and it’s easier and more pleasant to find confirmation than conflict.  For those rare leaders who understand the need to break out, the best suggestion I can make is to get outside your system by any means you can think of, physically, mentally, and perhaps even morally (although be careful with this last one).

As Boyd noted early in his career as a philosopher of conflict, trying to understand, much less solve, your problems by staying purely within your company, organization, or system will not only not solve them, it will foster increasing confusion and disorder. Don’t do your opponents’ or competitors’ jobs for them.


For more information on the amygdala, the Whalen Lab at Dartmouth offers an interactive and very cool site.  Also, check out LeDoux’s lab at NYU, The Center for Neural Science, which concentrates on how the brain handles traumatic memories, the kind Boyd is trying to give to his opponents.

A tip of the hat to David Anderson of LeanKanban University for the article by MacKay.

The information on the limbic system comes primarily from Fundamentals of Anatomy & Physiology, 10th ed., by Frederic H. Martini, Judi L. Nath, and Edwin F. Bartholomew, esp. ch. 14.


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4 thoughts on “More physiology of “operating inside the OODA loop”

  1. “Therefore, one skilled at battle, his shih is steep, his node is short. … shih is like drawing the crossbow. The node is like pulling the trigger. (p. 100).” I take this to mean that the gap between Decision and Action is high and narrow. The line drawn between the bottom of the gap to the top (the path taken) is steep in the known, while the node representing the distance of the unknown (which all operations after the trigger is pulled is unknown) is very short. I hope I am saying the same thing. I understand somethings better if I am able to see an image of the diagram of it first.
    I can understand the gap between Decision and Action being narrow. Time is a measure of distance, and you want time decisions and actions to be very short. If you got your orientation right it is.
    But I don’t believe the gap between Decision and Action as empty. There is a position on the path that operations takes off from or starts, and that position is just as important as the Decision that has just been made.
    But, unlike Orientation, that position can only be observed once the decisions of the operations (possibly as simple as the decision to pull or don’t pull the trigger) have been completed. This is very problematic because shooters are taught that there can’t be any hesitation once the decision to pull the trigger has been made, and if positioning actually takes place, as I think it does, after decision, then this would seem to contradict best practices, if nothing else.
    Position can’t be observed until after the decision to pull the trigger is made, because its location is mostly dependent on the feedback from Action instead of one’s Orientation (as is the case of Decision).
    This positioning is both physical and mental and I believe the process is called thinking. I only mention this, because I think where this process is positioned in the OODA loop is significant that I have given it some thought.

  2. I have been reading the works of Patrick Cockburn extensively and I have wondered in the case of ISIS – have they gotten in the Western decision loop? Are we falling into their trap?

    • “have they gotten in the Western decision loop?” I would be interested in Chet’s take on this, but I think not. Unlike the US penetration into Iraq during the second Gulf War, I don’t think there is an outside force that is affecting how we make our decisions. It is really more how we are oriented internally to face this crisis, than how others are observing us. We went into Iraq, pretty much, with Iran solidly inside our loop, but ISIS is in another environment that we have not really penetrated yet, and it is within the workspace of an environment that orientation really begins. If one is not oriented according to what is being observed, then we are talking about different loops. Loops that may or may not even be in competition with each other.

  3. “Are we falling into their trap?” I think this is another question. While someone may be trapped inside another OODA loop, strictly speaking you can’t “fall” into a trap, when being manipulated inside another’s OODA loop.
    Once inside another’s loop, you mainly go where you are able and without force.
    The point being, is where you are going an advantage to you or some other observer?

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