The OODA Loop and the Analysis Paralysis Trap

I was listening to Ben Branam’s latest Modern Self-Protection podcast. In this third episode, Ben talks about the OODA loop and its implications for self-defense and training. He has lots of great stuff to say, and I’d encourage you to take a listen, but I wanted to touch on an aspect of the OODA loop Ben didn’t talk about.

The OODA loop is a model developed by US Air Force Col. John Boyd to understand how we react to circumstances in our environment. The four stages of the OODA loop are: We observe an event unfolding in our environment, we orient ourselves to what’s happening and place it into a mental context based upon our cultural conditioning and training, we decide how to respond, and then we act. The reason the process is described as a loop is because the outcome of our action – or our inaction – can trigger a new circumstance, which then starts the loop over again.

In his podcast, Ben talks about what happens when our opponent “gets inside our loop”, behaving in a way we don’t expect and forcing us into a reactive mode. He also talks about what happens when we get “inside” our opponent’s OODA loop. A common example of this would be when an armed citizen pulls a weapon on a criminal who was counting on passive compliance – there’s a momentary paralysis while the bad guy’s mind takes in the new information (“holy cr*p, that woman’s ARMED!”) and decides how to respond. If we can train our instinctive reactions, we can use that momentary paralysis to our advantage.

I’m not going to repeat Ben’s discussion, so I’ll let you listen to it. The bit I wanted to talk about is when we get stuck in the first part of the OODA loop. This happens most often in a rapidly-unfolding, unexpected situation, such as a plane crash. Our brains, literally unable to believe what’s happening, get short-circuited. While we’re stuck trying to orient ourselves to the surroundings, the surroundings are changing. So, we try to orient ourselves again, but the surroundings continue to change. Our minds keep searching for more information, and we get stuck in the loop of seeking, and then trying to orient to, more and more information without ever actually making a decision or acting.

This is why it’s not uncommon to find victims of aircraft fires who stay in their seats, belts fastened, and die of smoke inhalation, while other passengers who responded quickly to the danger are able to escape the wreckage. It’s why we see victims of mass shootings freezing in place, even when “in place” is clearly in the line of fire. And it’s why soldiers, cops, bodyguards and the like train and retrain to have instant reflexive responses to the kinds of threats they’re most likely to encounter.

The truth is this: When disaster strikes, none of us has the luxury of waiting until we have perfect information and a perfect plan. When you’re enjoying dinner with your family in a nice restaurant, you have plenty of time to gather information and think about what you’d do if trouble struck. You have time to notice the exits, notice the obstructions in the way, think about how you and your loved ones would get to safety. When the fire starts or the bad guy pulls his gun, or whatever the disaster is, you’re out of time. As much as your mind very much wants you to gather more information and make a better plan, you don’t have that luxury. In that moment, you have as much information as you’ll ever have, and the plan in your head is the very best it will ever be. In that moment, you have to be able to break out of the O-O-D part of the loop and ACT.

It turns out this is very hard for us humans. Our brains are designed and shaped by evolution to be great pattern-matching tools, constantly seeking out the maximum amount of information to enable us to search our memories for past experiences that will help us through the present reality. It turns out, as demonstrated by a lot of research in the field of cognitive science, that being able to say “I know my information is imperfect, and I know my plan is incomplete, but this is as good as it gets and now it’s time to act.”

Training, especially training that uses simulated stress – timed training, training in low-light, training with Simunition or paintball-armed bad guys – can help us learn to make that decidedly unnatural transition from analysis to action. So can simply knowing about the cognitive trap. It turns out that if we know our instinctive response will lead us astray, that knowledge will help us move through the moment of paralysis. In a crisis, action is almost always better than inaction. One military friend of mine likes to say that in a critical situation, even doing the wrong thing decisively is better than doing nothing, because at least the wrong thing changes the status quo.

Have you ever had an experience where you got stuck in the analysis part of the OODA loop during a crisis? How did you move past it…or could you move past it? I’d love to hear your experiences. And do check out Ben’s podcast – you’ll almost certainly learn something.

Photo credit: stock.xchng


  1. Thanks for the kind words. That was a good add to the discussion from my podcast.

    • Thanks for the comment, Ben, and for your great podcasts! I always look forward to them, and I always learn something.


  1. […] finds me, when escape is impossible, that slim edge of surprise might disrupt my attacker’s OODA loop just long enough to give me the space I need to […]

  2. […] the criminal into more of a defensive role. I talked about this the other day in the context of OODA loops, where you can “get inside your opponent’s OODA loop” and force him to stop […]

  3. […] to get: It doesn’t prepare you to fight through the “freeze” at the start of your OODA loop. Real violent encounters are saturated with adrenaline and other stress hormones, and this will […]

  4. […] on THEM, and you’re vulnerable to attack during that window of time. This is what the OODA loop is all about; it describes the cognitive process of shifting focus from whatever else you were […]

  5. […] time to access them, because I was definitely stuck in the “observe-orient” part of the OODA Loop until much too late in the game. When you’re out in the world and doing your daily […]

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