A History of the OODA Loop

This post was written as part of the roundtable on Frans Osinga’s Science, Strategy, and War. Contributions have already been made by Chet Richards and Wilf Owen.

“To a certain extent the argument is valid that Boyd offered merely a synthesis of existing theories, a contemporary one, important and timely regarding the context of the 1970s and 1980s, but only a synthesis.”
Osinga, 2007, pg 29

John Boyd’s OODA Loop divides cognition into four processes, perception (called Observation), unconscious or implicit thought (called Orientation), conscious of explicit though (called Decision), and behavior (called Action). Frans Osinga’s “Science, Strategy, and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd” does an excellent job describing the origins of Boyd’s learning theory in the writings of Skinner, Piaget, and the cognitivists. However, Osinga’s text excludes ongoing research into theories of learning related to OODA, as his text is focused on the development of the OODA model in particular rather than contemporary adaption. Fortunately, a recent review article by Jonathan St. B.T. Evans serves helps complete the picture, though the OODA loop is not mentioned there by name. Osinga’s book is well worth purchasing, and can be thought of as as prolegomena to all future OODA work.

The OODA Loop

The “OODA loop,” or “Boyd Cycle” (Osinga, page 2) is a dual-processing model of thought. That is, it supposes the existence of two seperate central executives inside each human mind. The first of these, “Orientation,” is activated immediately by perception (called Observation by Boyd) and is capable of directly controlling behavior (likewise, called Action). Orientation is closely associated with long term memory. As Osinga writes on pages 236 to 237:

In order to avoid predictability and ensuring adaptability to a variety of challenges, it is essential to have a repertoire of orientation patterns and the ability to select the correct one according to the situation at hand while denying the opponent the latter capability. Moreover, Boyd emphasizes the capability to validate the schemata before and during operations and the capability to devise and incorporate new ones, if one is to survive in a rapidly changing environment…. verifying existing beliefs and expectations, and if necessary modifying these in a timely matter, is crucial. The way to play the game of interaction and isolation is to spontaneously generate new mental images that match up with an unfolding work of uncertainty and change, Boyd asserted…”

The second central executive, Decision, analogous to conscious thought, or what attention is spent on. As Osinga writes, “Decision is the component in which actors decide among actions alternatives that are generated in the orientation phase.” Unlike orientation, decision faces limits in how much it can handle, and therefore relies on orientation to present it which simplified and categorized chunks in which to work.

John Boyd’s model was purposefully designed as an cognitive and learning theory based on mainstream work within psychology. As Osinga writes on page 53:

On 15 October 1972 he wrote from his base in Thailand to his wife that ‘I may be on the trail of a theory of learning quite different and – it appears now more powerful than methods or theories currently in use’. Learning for him was synonymous for the process of creativity

In particular, Boyd’s theory was based on the work of Jean Piaget, B.F. Skinner, and the earlier cognitivists. Boyd combined each of these traditions, though revised some elements. From Piaget he both took the concept of mental structures, as well as suspicion of the power of logical analysis alone as a proper epistemological tool. To again quote Osinga (page 68)

Boyd also came across another source of uncertainty. As Jean Piaget asserted in the book Boyd read for his essay, ‘In 1931 Kurt Gödel made a discovery which created a tremendous stir, because it undermined the then prevailing formalism, according to which mathematics was reducible to logic and logic could be exhaustively formalized. Gödel established definitely that the formalist program cannot be executed’.

As Osinga describes in Chapter 3, “Science,” Boyd drew from both Skinner and the cognitivists the power of environmental feedback. Consider the relatively trivial cognitive or cybernetic proposition on page 72 that:

“A feedback loop is a circular arrangement of casually connected elements, in which an initial cause propagates around the links of the loop, so that each element has an effect on the next, until the last ‘feeds back’ into the first element of the cycle. The consequence is that the first link (‘input’) is affected by the last (‘output’), which results in self-regulation fo the entire system.

Osinga then proceeds to discuss the OODA loop as Boyd applied it, touching only briefly on Chapter 7 of some applications of Boydian thought to areas of military operations. However, Osinga does not emphasize the areas in which the OODA loop itself is still unique, but only compares it to either incorrect renditions of the OODA model (such as the “simplified” rendition Osinga shows on page 2) or to theories that preceded OODA (such as a cybernetic model without feedback and “(Reflex)” instead of orientation or System 2, on page 75).

Consider, for instance, two other models, one by Jon St. Evans published in 2006 and the other by Richard Moreno, published in 1990. Using different terms, the Evans model describes the role of Orientation (called by him System 1) and Decision (called by him System 2). Orientation or System 1 initially activates, and it may either lead to conceptual change or else inform further System 2 deliberation. However, Evans’ model lacks the cybernetic or cognitive function of feedback, and does not describe how the last function would inform the first. Boyd’s OODA loop, by attaching both Action and Observation to the environment, therefore may be described as a completed Evans model.

Information Processing

Likewise, the OODA loop completes the Moreno model. Moreno’s description of learning focuses on the transformation of information in the external world to long term memory. In particular, Moreno’s ongoing research focuses on the limited ability of explicit though to handle all information that should be learned. However, Moreno does not view long term memory as much other than an end-state for information (rather than the abode of Boyd’s Orientation or Evans’ System 1). Additionally, like Evans, Moreno does not connect the last stage of his model with his first.

Dual Processing

Just as Osinga does not compare the OODA loop with other contemporary models, he does not describe contemporary research that further describes the difference between Orientation and Decision. The research on the subject is now well established, and Table 2 in Evans’ 2008 paper “Dual-Processing Accounts of Reasoning, Judgment, and Social Cognition,” in the 2008 edition fo the Annual Review of Psychology, provides a synopsis of the distinction between Orientation (System 1) and Decision (System 2)

System 1 System 2
Cluster 1 (Consciousness)
Unconscious (preconscious) Conscious
Implicit Explicit
Automatic Controlled
Low effort High effort
Rapid Slow
High capacity Low capacity
Default process Inhibitory
Holistic, perceptual Analytic, reflective
Cluster 2 (Evolution)
Evolutionarily old Evolutionarily recent
Evolutionary rationality Individual rationality
Shared with animals Uniquely human
Non-verbal Linked to language
Modular cognition Fluid intelligence
Cluster 3 (Functional characteristics)
Associative Rule-based
Domain-specific Domain-general
Contextualised Abstract
Pragmatic Logical
Parallel Sequential
Stereotypical Egalitarian
Cluster 4 (Individual differences)
Universal Heritable
Independent of general intelligence Linked to general intelligence
Independent of working memory Limited by working memory capacity

Frans Osinga’s Science, Strategy, and War is a groundbreaking book on the OODA loop, describing in excellent detail how it originated. Buy it. What is needed now is an comparison of the OODA loop to contemporary theories of learning and an application of OODA in light of the newest research.

Evans, J. St. B. (2006). The heuristic-analytic theory of reasoning: Extension and evaluation. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 13(3), 378-395.
Evans, J. St. B. (2008). Dual-processing accounts of reasoning, judgment and social cognition. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.59.103006.093629.
Mayer, R.E. (1996). Learners as information processors: Legacies and limitations of Educational Psychology’s second metaphor. Educational Psychologist, 31(3/4), 151-161.
Osinga, F.P.B. (2007). Science, strategy, and war: The strategic theory of John Boyd. New York: Routledge.

4 thoughts on “A History of the OODA Loop”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *