Why Crowds and Lines Can Be Overwhelming. OODA Loop

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My LEO hubby accompanied me inside Wells Fargo one day when I had to make a deposit for work. There was quite a line and remember turning around and looking up at my husband’s face and watching him. There he stood in a modified cop pose with his hands looking relaxed, fingers gently laced in front of him. I knew better. He wasn’t relaxed. I watched his face closely as he scanned the room with various desks and people in the room. I laughed gently and shook my head. He looked at me and said, “What?”. I think I said something like, “Don’t you ever shut it off?”. Of course, he said no. I was annoyed and thought to myself, “Jeesh, always a cop!”. When we left I asked him what he saw and he proceeded to describe the whole room, who was doing what, and who he thought was sketchy. I laughed again gently and told him I love him for watching out and keeping us safe.

Fast forward a few months when I’m attending a professional conference and learning about combat PTSD. A military veteran was doing an incredible job describing the various stages of alertness as well as the fight or flight response. Then he described the OODA Loop. As I am listening to this man describe this process, I am on the edge of my seat thinking, “OMG! My husband does that every damn time we leave the house!”. I grabbed my phone while I was listening to this and texted him, “OMG I understand you SO much better now… learning about OODA!”. It was the first of many times that our occupations would collide.

The OODA Loop is a process of decision making and was coined by Col. John Boyd, a fighter pilot in the Korean war. His observations of human behavior and reaction times made him very successful during the war and he wound up training many other pilots on his technique.

OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. It sounds pretty straight forward and simple. I mean, I make decisions based upon that process on a pretty regular basis. BUT, this loop is more than just words in a decision making process. It is actually much richer and deeper than it appears on the surface. Let’s break it down and use my Wells Fargo outing as an example.

In OBSERVING, the five senses are being used. Now when I think about my five senses I think of mindfulness and being present. While that seems to be a part of the process it is not the whole process as this also involves watching people’s movements and interactions not just how they relate to me but how they relate to the environment and those around them. His observations include looking for danger, something out of the ordinary or not just right, unfolding circumstances, and looking for clues in human behavior. He’s observing all the people in Wells Fargo and all their interactions including the bank tellers, staff, and customers standing in line, those walking in the door, as well as those interacting with staff at various other locations.

ORIENTING involves processing what is being seen. The information gets run through a filter of personal experiences, fears, beliefs and a few others. This is where the fight or flight response starts to kick in and he starts to prepare to fight or what is next. The thing is that as the observations change so does the orienting. This part of the loop can be a loop within itself as you can imagine. So, as we are sitting at Wells Fargo, this is what was going through his head as he is watching what is around him and I’m just annoyed that the line is long.

My initial thought about the DECIDE step was “make the decision” but in the OODA loop this means thinking about all the different hypothesis possible as well as considering training, physical condition, and experience. In therapy, I spend many hours in my week trying to get people OUT of “what if” thinking. With my husband, he is always in “what if” thinking and analyzing the situation. With each analyzation he is considering what action you are going to take and he would face the potential theat.   This is the part of the process where my LEO hubby starts looking for what he can use for weapons based upon the environment. This again can be another loop within the OODA loop

The final step is to ACT. That day at Wells Fargo he didn’t need to act at all. Most of the time this is instinctual. If you’ve spent any time around your LEO, you have probably seen those instincts kick in when they don’t need to. I’m grateful they do. I have been around when he has acted but I’m grateful that those actions were minor usually a sweeping motion of some kind or him being very direct with me in order to protect me from a perceived threat. I used to roll my eyes and do whatever it was begrudgingly. Now, I respect that he observes things daily that I will never see. Just like I determine therapeutic patterns working with people in my office, he sees patterns that I never will because of his experience.

The whole process is mentally exhausting but there he was in the middle of Wells Fargo going through his OODA loop. It’s what he is trained to do. It keeps him safe daily. To turn it off would not be in his character especially in a situation with someone he loves. Instead, I have learned to respect his OODA loop, give him his mental space to do so, and know that he does so because it’s who he is and he loves me.