The Critical Thinker’s OODA Loop

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Summary: The Critical Thinker’s OODA Loop is a high-speed decision making and feedback process using simple rules to upgrade your critical thinking skills for a sharper mind.

As humans, we typically operate on cognitive autopilot. We rarely stop and reflect on how we interpret information and create mental models which replicate our perception of reality.

However, what do we do when our mental models fail to match reality?

Instead of changing our mental models, we simply ignore reality and operate throughout the day on implicit assumptions. These are hidden assumptions and not conscious choices. Our mental models allow us a simple way to cope with reality, yet we fail to confront reality when it is different than our mental model. Essentially, we have unknowingly created a ready-made default mechanism.[1]

So, what can we do?

We must first take time to reflect. By simply understanding how you interpret and perceive information differently than everyone else is a great first step. However, to truly upgrade your critical thinking skills, you must examine how thoughts arise in your mind and how they got there. Critical thinking is about asking yourself how you make choices. We can choose to believe something we hear or see; however, why do we choose to believe something we hear or see?

As a Red Team Member in the U.S. Army, I will explain how I upgrade my critical thinking skills using Colonel John Boyd’s OODA Loop as a framework for critical thinking. I will then demonstrate practical ways to upgrade your critical thinking skills for a sharper mind using tools and techniques from the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies (UFMCS) Center for Applied Critical Thinking (also known as the Red Team school) and The Applied Critical Thinking Handbook (also known as The Red Team Handbook).

What is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking can be explained in a number of ways. Let’s quickly examine a few definitions.

  • “Critical thinking is a process, the goal of which is to make reasonable decisions about what to believe and what to do.” — Robert Enis

To me, critical thinking is as follows:

“Critical thinking is observing the world with an open and skeptical mindset with the goal of exploring all alternatives objectively (as much as possible). It is our ability to orient our mental models to view reality through an emotionless lens seeking the truth by questioning our own assumptions and deconstructing arguments logically. It is our ability to identify gaps and uncover what is missing to improve our quality of decisions. Finally, it is our ability to unravel different strands of significant information through a continuous stream of feedback so that we continuously destroy and create new mental models allowing us to act closer to reality.” — Dr. Jamie Schwandt

What is the OODA Loop?

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I use John Boyd’s OODA Loop as a framework for critical thinking. It is similar to Swarm Intelligence, where we use simple rules to allow the collective intelligence to emerge. The simple rules are Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act.

Essentially, the OODA Loop is a high-speed decision making and feedback process in four stages: Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act.[2] The OODA Loop is a continuous feedback loop where the objective is to go through the loop faster than your opponent. I use simple rules provided within the OODA Loop to assist me in speeding up my critical and creative thinking abilities. However, do not confuse the word “simple” with “simplistic” as the OODA Loop uses simple rules within a complex system (which is exactly what the OODA Loop is).

The key to the loop is feedback. The OODA Loop is similar to Double-Loop Learning, where the goal is to modify decision-making in light of new experience.

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Double-Loop Learning: The first loop uses goals or decision making rules, the second loop enables their modification… hence, double-loop.[3]

Chris Argyris writes about Double-Loop Learning in Teaching Smart People How To Learn,

“A thermostat that automatically turns on the heat whenever the temperature in a room drops below 68 degree is a good example of single-loop learning. A thermostat that could ask why am I set to 68 degree? and then explore whether or not some other temperature might more economically achieve the goal of heating the room would be engaged in double-loop learning.”

The overarching guide for my use of the OODA Loop is as follows:

  • Scout Mindset (see below)

After reading this sentence, you will realize that the the brain doesn’t recognize a second ‘the’.

Now read the sentence again, this time read it backwards. Did you notice that you missed the second ‘the’?

  • Think-Write-Share. The UFMCS uses this as the single most important idea to enable critical thinking. For example, prior to taking on an issue, we should first think independently and reflectively, then write down our thoughts (which assists us in shaping and refining them), then share them in a disciplined manner. This takes us from divergence to convergence.[4]

Part 1 of his question:

“Imagine that you are on a ski slope with other skiers…that you are in Florida riding in an outboard motorboat, maybe even towing water-skiers. 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.”

Part 2:

“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.”

What do you imagine could be created using the remaining parts?

Answer: a Snowmobile

Let’s now turn our attention to the four simple rules within the OODA Loop.

The Critical Thinker’s OODA Loop: Simple Rules to Guide You

Observe

Metaphor: Think of how we use sensors and gather information. In an ant colony, this is where ants shoot pheromones to signal others when they have found food.

Here we are detecting events within our environment and identifying change (or lack thereof).[5] This could also be identified as Locate or Perceive (think swarming tactics or artificial intelligence).

Key points:

  • Find out what is really there.
  • Begin with a blank and open mind.

Key questions to ask:

  • What happened?

Key tools to use:

  • 6 Words. This is simply writing a short and precise phrase summarizing your thinking into a set number of words.

Orient

Metaphor: Think of a construction site where destruction (analysis) and creation (synthesis) take place.

John Boyd identified orientation as our way to survive and grow within a complex and ever changing world.[7] This could also be identified as Converge or Understand.

Key points:

  • Identify your biases and know how they impact decision making.

Key questions to ask:

  • Where are the pattern of bullet holes NOT located?

Key tools to use:

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  • Argument Deconstruction (see below).
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  • Dialectical Method (thesis, antithesis, synthesis)
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neXt — Innovative Framework. Professor Ramesh Raskar, head of MIT Media Lab’s Camera Culture Research Group, created an easy-to-use framework for inventing the future — right now. Watch the following video:

Decide

Metaphor: Think of a hypothesis like you would when putting a puzzle together, where you are making predictions then testing those predictions.

Here we are to decide among alternatives generated in the orientation phase. This could be identified as Attack or Predict.

Key points:

  • Identify and select your next action based on orientation and local knowledge.

Key questions to ask:

  • What evidence is not being seen for the hypothesis to be true?

Key tools to use:

  • Algorithmic Thinking (IF — AND — THEN).

Act

Metaphor: Think of testing and retesting a hypothesis.

According to Boyd, actions should be rapid, surprising, ambiguous, and ever changing.[8] This could be identified as Disperse or Learn.

Key points:

  • Carry out your decision (or selected action) while the opponent is still observing the last action.[9]

Key questions to ask:

  • What did I learn?

Key tools to use:

How-To Guide: Tools to Apply the Critical Thinker’s OODA Loop

Argument Deconstruction

The UFMCS provides a powerful framework for deconstructing an argument.

The method:[10]

  • What is the argument? Here the argument = problem (or premise) + reasons + conclusion

The 4 Agreements

Another great way the U.S. Army Red Team community upgrades their critical thinking ability is through the following four agreements:

  1. Don’t make assumptions.

Finally, I recommend using the following mnemonic. I created this tool to assist me as I move through the Critical Thinker’s OODA Loop. Additionally, I recommend writing this down on a note-card and keeping a copy with you at all times.

SDWFAP

Scouting: Think like a Scout — the drive to see what’s really there.

In the following video Why you think you’re right-even if you’re wrong, Julia Galef examines the motivation between two mindsets (Scout mindset vs Soldier mindset) and how they shape the way we interpret information.

Watch the following video:

Galef explains that Scouts are curious and are more likely to feel pleasure when they learn new information. She says it’s like an itch to solve a puzzle. We should strive to develop a Scout Mindset. Let’s examine qualities Scout’s possess:

  • The Scout’s job is not to attack or defend, but to understand — to go out, map the terrain and identify potential obstacles.

Dog: Find the Dog who isn’t barking.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story Silver Blaze, we are presented with a mystery of the disappearance of a famous racehorse the night prior to a race and the murder of the horse’s trainer. Mike Skotnicki describes the story about The Dog that Didn’t Bark:

“The dog that didn’t bark. What we can learn from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle about using the absence of expected facts.” — Mike Skotnicki

  • Sherlock Holmes solves the mystery in part by recognizing that no one he spoke to in his investigation remarked that they had heard barking from the watchdog during the night.

Was: What would have to exist for something to be true?

Here we can use a UFMCS Red Team tool called What If? Analysis. This tool assumes an event has already happened with potential impact (positive or negative) and explains how it might play out.[11] This is a powerful technique for challenging a closed mindset by shifting the focus from whether an event could occur to how it might happen.

The method:[12]

  • Clearly state the conventional line assuming the event has happened, then step back and consider what alternative outcomes are too important to dismiss, even if unlikely.

Another technique you can use here is The Reductio ad Absurdum. This is a simple yet powerful tool.

The method:

  • Assume a statement to be true and see what conclusions you can discern from it. If you find you get a contradiction, you know the initial statement is false as contradictions are always false.

For more on this technique, I recommend reading Logic: A Graphic Guide.

Frightened: What’s not right in Front of us?

Here we can use a combination of tools and techniques. For example, if you have a team or group of people, you could use what’s called a Premortem and/or Postmortem Analysis. This is an application of mental stimulation and is a great tool for Group Think Mitigation. We could also use the 5-Why technique after we have asked what happened. We could also use Algorithmic Thinking where we perform an If-And-Then series of questions. Let’s combine the three and see how this can be used.

The method:

  • Assume an event has happened or after an event has happened — use 5-Why to identify causes as to why this event happened.

At: Ask what evidence is not being seen, but would be expected for a hypothesis to be true.

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“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” — Sherlock Holmes

Conduct an Analysis of Competing Hypotheses (ACH). The objective is to identify alternative explanations (hypotheses) and evaluate the evidence that will disconfirm rather than confirm the hypotheses.[13] This is how I reason backwards.

The method:[14]

  • Brainstorm and list all possible hypotheses (no matter how improbable they may seem). List the hypotheses first then the evidence (think Deductive Reasoning). You can list the evidence first, then the hypotheses if you prefer (think Inductive Reasoning).

A good example of ACH can be found at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Patterns: Where are the Pattern (or location) of bullet holes NOT located?

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Statistician Abraham Wald was tasked with helping the Allies decide where to add armor to bombers during World War II.[15] The Allies hoped extra protection would help minimize bomber losses due to enemy anti-aircraft fire. They thought the answer was obvious and the bombers returning from missions showed them where to put the extra armor. However, Wald disagreed. He explained the damage actually revealed the locations that needed the least additional armor. In essence, it’s where the bombers could be hit and still survive the flight home.

This is an example of selection or survivorship bias, where we typically only consider information that’s presented to us and ignore information that is absent, yet might just be significantly relevant. For example, the locations on the bombers without bullet holes might just be the location to reinforce.

Finally, we should be extremely carefully of what we remove from a system or process. We have to be aware of the second and third order effects. I will leave you with one final video: How Wolves Change Rivers:

REFERENCES:

[1] University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies: The Applied Critical Thinking Handbook

[2] Frans P.B. Osinga: Science, Strategy and War

[3] Wikipedia: Double-loop learning

[4] University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies: The Applied Critical Thinking Handbook

[5] Frans P.B. Osinga: Science, Strategy and War

[6] University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies: The Applied Critical Thinking Handbook

[7] Frans P.B. Osinga: Science, Strategy and War

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ahmad Shehabat and Teodor Mitew: Distributed Swarming and Stigmergic Effects on ISIS Networks OODA Loop Model

[10] University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies: The Applied Critical Thinking Handbook

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Seeking Alpha: How Survivorship Bias Distorts Reality

Written by

Dr. Schwandt (Ed.D.) is an American author, L6S master black belt, and red teamer.

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