Change/Coherence + OODA Loop

August 16, 2016
#Social Engineering #Manipulation #Persuasion #Boyd #OODA #OODA Loop #NDM #Klein #Kahneman #learning #decision-making #intuition |
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Please read the other posts in this series first.

Here we'll take a brief look at the nature of change and then delve into abusing our natural process for decision making, learning, and intuition to "defeat enemies in combat" with Boyd's OODA loop. Boyd spent years studying many strategists dating back to Sun Tzu and his theory is so central that it'll be split into a 2 part series finale; an in-depth overview here followed by how to abuse it in the next segment.

A Word On Change/Coherence

There is seemingly only one "true" principle/constant in our reality; nearly everything is subject to change. It's delightfully easy to prove too! If something was immune to change then nothing would happen yet it seems most things change constantly. The cells in your body get replaced over time, energy from stars/nebulae in space take on new forms, clothes get worn out, scientific theories and personal beliefs evolve as we gather more information; hell things like your height and body weight fluctuate daily and even our universe itself is perpetually expanding.

So how can we "know" things in a such a crazy, chaotic environment? A philosophical approach called "Coherence" can help and it essentially means keeping your beliefs fluid thus allowing them to adapt as new information becomes available.

Even eastern philosophy has taken notice as seen in this quote from "The Buddha":

In life we cannot avoid change, we cannot avoid loss. Freedom and happiness are found in the flexibility and ease with which we move through change.

Pain points seem to primarily clot around stagnation and avoidance of change. Again - remember that people "filter" reality based on what helps give them the ability to cope with such a cruel, harsh, and impersonal universe. A good question to keep in mind is "How much capacity for change does this person have?" or "How much 'unfiltered reality' can they take at once?" and the answer is often times "not much".

Example: Post-retirement secretary

Imagine a post-retirement age secretary who still works despite having a hard time keeping up with job duties and technology. She is likely working since she can't envision life any other way or needs the money/benefits. Her delusion is the ability to "keep up"; she will probably jump at the opportunity to help with even the smallest "urgent or important" task and may love compliments or other methods of showing "genuine" appreciation.

Another way around this "cruel, impersonal" nature might come through psychiatrist Victor Frankl's take on how to potentially heal suffering by giving it meaning:

Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now, how could I help him? What should I tell him? Well, I refrained from telling him anything but instead confronted him with the question, “What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?” “Oh,” he said, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” Whereupon I replied, “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering—to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.” He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office. In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.

This is similar to V.Rao's "subtractive synthesis" where you remove/simplify things that cause discomfort or conflict from people's lives;

Recall that Sociopaths create meaning for others through the things they subtract, rather than the things they add. This is something conspiracy theorists typically don’t get: manufacturing fake realities is very hard. But subtractive simplification of reality is much easier, and yields just as much power.

Philosophy, psychology, and religion aren't the only ones who've taken notice of this "nature of change" either; let's move on to Boyd's OODA Loop.

Boyd's OODA Loop

John Boyd was a colonel in the USAF who came up with a now widely-used military theory that describes a framework for our natural decision-making process and how to best abuse it. Boyd was convinced we live in a world of constant change, ambiguity, and uncertainty in which we will never have complete information about a situation; even if such a complete accumulation of knowledge is possible we will likely never have it regardless. Funny enough it seems science backs him up between Godel's Incompleteness Theorems, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, and the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.

Enter the OODA Loop which stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act.


The first step is observation which Boyd describes as the act of sensing the world around you and gathering intelligence. This helps keep you in an "open" system as opposed to a closed one; going back the the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics entropy will always increase over time in any closed system so our goal is to keep our mental models as open as possible. We've already covered much of this with people watching, training our perception, and intelligence gathering so I won't beat a dead horse. Boyd, like many martial art schools, promotes a state of "relaxed readiness" to allow for better reaction times and a clear mind. Another good way to describe this mindset is to reference Jeff Coopers "color code" where we want to emulate "yellow" which, again, is an alert yet relaxed mindset. Boyd also mentions inputs for new information as unfolding circumstance, outside information, and unfolding interaction.

Unfolding circumstances represent something you sense happening but is random or independent of your actions - say hearing tires screech while a driver brakes to avoid hitting a small child in the road. Outside information describes things as they are happening from someone else's perspective - say hearing a woman yelling at the child "Oh no - look out little girl!". Unfolding interaction includes your personal interactions with the environment - say pushing a bicycle out of the way so you can get to the child in time.

Boyd mentions 2 big pitfalls to the observation phase; first we often have incomplete information available to us and second we can have access to an overwhelming amount of information which can make separating the useful parts from the "noise" quite difficult and time consuming. We can overcome these pitfalls through judgement aka the Orientation phase and the below quote from Frans P.B. Osinga, who did a major dissertation on Boyd's system, illustrates this well:

"...even if one has perfect information it is of no value if it is not coupled to a penetrating understanding of its meaning, if one does not see the patterns. Judgment is key. Without judgment, data means nothing. It is not necessarily the one with more information who will come out victorious, it is the one with better judgment, the one who is better at discerning patterns.”


Orientation is the most important part of the OODA loop for Boyd which he described as a complex set of filters/lenses and heuristics that shape our observations and the resulting decisions/actions. Yet again science backs up his claim as shown by Kahneman and Klein in their 2009 paper "Conditions for Intuitive Expertise: A Failure to Disagree" which was further expanded upon by Kahneman in his TED Talk "The Riddle of Experience vs Memory".

The initial focus of Kaheman and Klein's paper was to contrast the differences between their two conflicting approaches to intuition and decision-making; instead they ended up describing two elements that are both present and come with their own limitations. Klein's approach is called Naturalistic Decision Making (NDM) and focuses on how we respond to situational cues by using prior experience. Kahneman's approach, Heuristics and Biases, claims that people mostly rely on "heuristics" aka mental short cuts for decision making.

Boyd describes "filters/lenses" we look through that can obscure our decisions as cultural tradition, prior experiences, new information, and genetic heritage. These are fairly self-explanatory by name alone and are similar to the numerous cognitive biases that can obscure our decision process. Limiting the amount of influence these biases have over you is key and Osinga goes on to outline exactly why this is such a key point;

"...orientation shapes the way we interact with the environment - it shapes the way we observe, the way we decide, the way we act. In this sense, orientation shapes the character of present OODA loops, while the present loop shapes the character of future orientation.."

Analysis and Synthesis

Boyd described another filter, called "analysis and synthesis", which represent destruction and creation respectively. Analysis is the process through which we study the whole by looking at it's individual parts whereas synthesis is a combination of many parts to create a whole. The goal of this continual process is the destruction of existing models and the creation of new ones in a similar fashion to Fichte's thesis, antithesis, and synthesis (particularly the last part about reconciling common truths).

The thesis is an intellectual proposition.

The antithesis is simply the negation of the thesis, a reaction to the proposition.

The synthesis solves the conflict between the thesis and antithesis by reconciling their common truths and forming a new thesis, starting the process over.

Boyd uses a thought experiment about a snowmobile to illustrate this mental process of destruction and creation:

“Imagine that you are on a ski slope with other skiers, that you are in Florida riding in an outboard motorboat. Imagine that you are riding a bicycle on a nice spring day. Imagine that you are a parent taking your son to a department store and that you notice he is fascinated by the toy tractors or tanks with rubber caterpillar treads.

Now imagine that you pull the skis off but you are still on the ski slope. Imagine also that you remove the outboard motor from the motorboat, and you are no longer in Florida. And from the bicycle you remove the handle-bar and discard the rest of the bike. Finally, you take off the rubber treads from the toy tractor or tanks. This leaves only the following separate pieces: skis, outboard motor, handlebars and rubber treads.”

The end result of Boyd's example leads to the individual pieces you would need to create a snowmobile. If you've ever played with legos then you are likely already very familiar with this. Typically with legos there are 2 options; follow the build plan or make your own creations using the pieces available to you.

When reading books/theories, learning new things, gathering intelligence, and observing your surroundings you want to take a similar approach and deconstruct the information into pieces to create something new with - in other words take what is useful, integrate it into your models, and leave the rest behind. This creation and destruction is not a one-time event either but rather a process; a constant state of change as the world around you changes. You will likely be re-orienting yourself often and even on the fly since you never "move on to the next step" completely in the loop. The idea is to use rule of thumb heuristics as "battle plans" augmented by the NDM side of connecting experience with patterns, visualizing how things will likely play out, then adjusting or even re-planning as you go.

These examples strongly mirror the functional fixedness bias where people tend to only use tools in ways they are traditionally used. Hacking and exploiting of any kind, whether dealing with people or technology, relies very heavily on overcoming this bias. One of the best examples is an attack vector known as SQL injection where the attacker uses an otherwise uncommon/unexpected method to force the targeted system to run code such as abusing the username field from a sign-in page.

Decide and Act

Decision is about selecting a "best educated guess" or hypothesis to test and there are typically 2 methods of "narrowing choices" we can use; well defined procedures and poorly designed procedures (aka heuristics vs NDM). Well defined procedure would deal with deductive processes such as the analysis of probabilities and statistics - think back to our example of collecting and visualizing data on groups/individuals for heuristic "rule of thumb" purposes. Poorly defined procedure would involve situations where there is little to no procedure or you may have to make you own - think of settings that include tight time frames, high stakes, grossly inadequate amounts of information, and team coordination. Dr Klein's NDM research focused mainly on high stress jobs such as emergency responders, police, and military personnel to find out how they make high stress or split-second decisions;

The powers of intuition, mental simulation, metaphor and storytelling are what experienced decision makers leverage in natural settings that have a series of decision points. The power of intuition enables us to size up a situation quickly. It depends on the use of experience to recognize key patterns that indicate the dynamics of the situation. The power of mental simulation lets us imagine how a course of action might be carried out. The power of metaphor lets us draw on our experience by suggesting parallels between the current situation and something else we have come across. The power of storytelling helps us consolidate those details in order to make them available in the future, either to ourselves or to others…Expertise in recognition prime decision-making depends on perceptual skills.

Last but not least we have act and it's just putting your decision into action - simple as that. You may have multiple tests going on at once or even use something similar to "A/B" testing where you test the same idea/product with a slight twist but ideally you'll finally be making a decision. As we'll see in the next post we are sometimes forced into "knee-jerk" reactions so we want to have as many "tried, tested, and true" heuristics to draw from as possible.

Let's move on to abusing the OODA loop with a few examples.

Next post

August 16, 2016
#Social Engineering #Manipulation #Persuasion #Boyd #OODA #OODA Loop #NDM #Klein #Kahneman #learning #decision-making #intuition |
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