Today we’re continuing our series on how the lawfully armed citizen can be more mentally prepared to survive violent encounters by understanding the OODA Loop. In the first installment, I discussed the basics of how the OODA Loop could be applied to the decision-making processes that occur in a hypothetical self-defense situation. Last week, I went into depth about the concept of situational awareness, which could also be understood as “Observe” — the first “O” in the OODA Loop. Observing one’s environment and looking for things that seem out of place is a good first step, but it’s only helpful if we have some idea of what to do with that information. That brings us to the second “O” in the OODA Loop — “Orient.”

The Orient step can be broken down into two main components. In this context, the first component is understanding the implication of relevant information that was gathered during the Observe step (e.g., the person who entered the convenience store is wearing a ski mask, and it’s July, making him more likely a robber). The second component is updating our current view of reality to incorporate that information (e.g., I am in a store that is likely about to be robbed). While this may sound like the simplest of the steps, there are hidden pitfalls as well as internal biases that work against us if we are not aware of them and take steps to counteract them.

Pre-Attack Indicators

The first component is addressed in real time. Recognizing something as relevant requires some level of expertise and ability to listen to our survival instincts, which hopefully you’ve honed after practicing your Observation skills. You are aware of what is normal and can ignore the normal activities around you. You can now focus your observation on abnormal activities. Learning pre-attack indicators is a good way to speed up your Orientation. If you Observe one or more pre-attack indicators you can Orient your perspective to the person displaying them as a likely threat. While a comprehensive list is beyond the scope of this article, common pre-attack indicators could be:

  • Lack of eye contact while speaking to you, especially if replaced with scanning the area
  • Assuming a fighting stance, such as dropping one leg back and balling the hands into fists, either raised or clenched at the side
  • Inappropriate closing of distance, particularly continuing to approach when told to stop
  • Staring at you while approaching
  • Attempting to flank you, particularly if in a group
  • Attempting to obscure the face, sometimes overtly with clothing but perhaps less obviously by ducking the head and/or covering the face with a hand or forearm
  • Prior threats have been made and conditions are met (particularly in domestic violence and workplace violence situations)
  • Overt verbal aggression, with or without criminal demands

By learning what constitutes a threat, we can more readily realize that a given action is a valid and reliable indicator of a possible impending attack and, therefore, Orient ourselves toward that possibility. However, there is another issue we must face before we can move to “Decide.”

Addressing Denial: Accept the Threat is real

The second component, which is updating our current view of reality, should be addressed prior to finding yourself in a life threatening situation. We must understand and accept that “it” could happen to us, with “it” being a violent crime, in this instance. We must work through the implications of this happening now rather than when a gun is pointed at us.

One of the pitfalls that keeps us from doing this is a cognitive bias often termed “Just World Bias”. In brief, Just World Bias is one of the methods our brains has to protect our self-esteem, to reduce worry in a chaotic world, and to increase our feelings of being in control (which is important in avoiding depression). This bias makes us believe the world is inherently fair, that bad things happen to bad people who deserve it., and that we, the good guys, won’t experience those bad things because we don’t deserve it. When something bad is happening, the dissonance causes us to do a few unhelpful things. One common response is our mind asks, “Why me?” and begins to look for some justification as to why the misfortune is falling on our head and not someone else’s. The second common response is denial, that this bad thing isn’t really occurring, and that there is some other explanation for it that protects our world view.

“If someone points a gun at us and states that he will shoot us if we don’t give him our wallets, we do not have the luxury of time to work through our denial.”

Obviously, neither of these is a helpful response if we are indeed in a bad situation that requires action on our part. If someone points a gun at us and states that he will shoot us if we don’t give up our wallets, we do not have the luxury of time to work through our denial. We must accept that we are actually being robbed so that we can move on to “Decide”. In Laurence Gonzalez’ excellent book Deep Survival, he notes that survivors of accidents and natural disasters begin their process of surviving whatever misfortune has befallen them via “perceive and believe.” As Gonzalez explains it, “If there is any denial, it is counterbalanced by a solid belief in the clear evidence of their senses. They immediately begin to recognize, acknowledge, and even accept the reality of their situation.”

Denial is incredibly powerful at immobilizing those who are unprepared and have not truly accepted the possibility of being victimized. I know a guy who was injured as a result of denial. The victim was walking on a trail in a public park when he was approached by two men in their late teens or early twenties. One of the suspects drew a pistol and demanded the victim’s wallet. The victim responded by asking if they were joking. To show him that he was serious, the robber shot the man in the thigh. It is not uncommon for victims to ask the robber questions regarding their motives, even if the robber has entered a store with a mask on, a weapon displayed, and passed a note demanding money. It is so common that many recovered robbery notes actually include the phrase “this is not a joke.”

Victims routinely express they were in denial at the time they were attacked. Along with asking if the person is serious, “I couldn’t believe it was happening to me” or “I was stunned” are common statements in victim interviews. The time to work through that surprise is now. Accept that you could be the target of random violence and work out the implications of that, realizing that you don’t have to do anything wrong or have “bad karma” to be selected as a victim. If you have been specifically threatened by someone who can credibly carry out that threat (without explaining it away as “he’s not really like that” or “she wouldn’t be that stupid), then face that possibility now. This is, after all, why you’ve elected to carry a weapon, is it not?

Orient In Real Time

We must continue to Orient ourselves as Observing gives us new data. Someone that was a threat who’s dropped their weapon and began to flee is no longer a threat. Failing to Orient to that new reality quickly enough can result in a legally and ethically questionable shooting. Remember that this is a constant loop, and we need to make decisions on current reality, not 5-seconds-ago reality.

The Orient step is ripe for interrupting the OODA loop of our opponent, giving us greater odds of prevailing.  An example is feigning compliance with a robber until an opening is created or observed.  One powerful way to exploit this is to talk to the robber and explain what you’re doing.  Remember you are probably not the first person that this individual has robbed, the others have not fought back, and he already expects compliance.   If you are reaching in to your pocket to access a pocket carried revolver, simply saying “I’m reaching into my pocket to give you my wallet” will set the expectations of the robber and cause dissonance when you instead pull a revolver, even once he Observes that it’s a weapon and not the wallet he was expecting.   This surprise allows you to take the initiative, and through speed and ferocity of attack to maintain it in order to deny the robber the time to effectively fight back.

Orienting is a powerful tool to avoid trouble and, failing that, to deal with trouble in a legally and ethically justifiable manner through good decision making, which will be the topic of next week’s article on the “Decide” step of the OODA Loop.

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2 thoughts on “Beyond Awareness: Recognizing the Threat

  1. I know the drill. Fill up before I drive through St. Louis, and if I have a flat, keep driving.

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