Col. Cooper’s Color Code — you’re very likely doing it wrong. There’s a possibility this article will slaughter a few sacred cows. It is certain to cause some ass pain. That’s okay, though. What we want to do, more than anything else is get engaged professionals talking whether they agree with the author’s contention or not. Know why? Because discussion, disagreement, and civil discourse are where learning occurs.
If you’re going to teach Cooper’s Colors, don’t teach it as advocating a mythical and unattainable concept of situational awareness. Teach it as the man intended: mental preparation for the decision to press the trigger.
Situational Awareness & Your Mind: Rethinking Cooper’s Color Code
At some point in the 1970s, Jeff Cooper created what is often called the Color Code. When he originally thought it up, and as he taught it, his purpose was to describe a shooter’s “…capacity…to cross the psychological barrier that inhibits [the] ability to take deadly action,” i.e., his or her mental preparation to press the trigger on a live target.
The “situational awareness” interpretation of the Color Code is fundamentally flawed.
Cooper’s Color Code: Mistranslated and Misunderstood
In Cooper’s original intent, one could scale from Condition White, in which one is completely unprepared for combat, to Condition Red, in which one is psychologically committed to combat, regardless of whether the fight has actually begun or not. Essentially, he recognized many people must mentally gear up for violence, and his code traced that progression to help the mental switch.
That is not, however, how Cooper’s Colors are generally used in the modern firearms training world.
Instead, they have been reinterpreted as shorthand to describe an individual’s “situational awareness.” Per this interpretation, the one most commonly cited in blogs and articles across the firearms community, an individual in Condition White is relaxed and unaware of what is happening around them. In Condition Yellow they’re in a state of “relaxed awareness”—not specifically paying attention to anything, but generally aware of what’s going on around them. In Condition Orange, they’re focused and specifically paying attention to something they’ve identified as a potential threat. And in Condition Red they’ve identified a threat and are completely focused on it, ready to respond to anything it does. It’s a simple, easy-to-remember system.
Unfortunately, whereas Cooper’s original Color Code is an effective tool to help ramp up to a mental state suited for combat, the “situational awareness” version so commonly used today is essentially useless and misleading. It fundamentally misunderstands how the brain scans for and responds to threats, and thus can harm shooters by leading them astray during training and development of their situational awareness skills.
The deliberate mind is lazy and cannot multitask.
Cognition and Reaction | the Duality of Grey Matter
Cognitive psychologists and decision scientists often model the brain as operating on two related but very different systems. In this dual-system model of cognition, System 1 may be thought of as the “automatic” mind and System 2 as the “deliberate” mind. The automatic mind runs the vast majority of what you do. It multitasks and makes decisions very quickly without you ever consciously thinking about them. The deliberate mind, on the other hand, only deals with one thing at a time, and does so much more slowly than the automatic mind. This distinction is critical to understanding decision making because each system does so via different processes.
The deliberate mind uses what is sometimes called “analytical” decision making, in which it assesses the situation and evaluates multiple options to choose the best one. The automatic mind, however, uses intuitive decision making, in which it only evaluates a single choice based on the available information, assesses its suitability by running a mental simulation, and either implements it or discards it (in which case it begins assessing the next potential choice). We all like to think we’re primarily analytical, assessing all our options and making the best possible choices. But the truth is we aren’t. The deliberate mind is lazy—it takes extra blood flow to the brain to make analytical decisions. And, more importantly, it literally can only focus on one thing at a time. The deliberate mind cannot multitask—when it tries to do so, it just shifts attention from task to task to task and does none of them well. So it shifts as much work as possible to the automatic brain.
To see how this works, think about when you first learned to drive a car. The first time you sat behind the wheel, you were trying to pay attention to everything: your hands on the wheel, the speedometer, your side and rear-view mirrors, the road in front of you, your blind spots, all the vehicles and pedestrians and obstacles around you, etc. And you weren’t doing any of it well. That’s because when you first learn a task, your deliberate mind is in charge, and its efforts to do everything at once lead you it doing everything badly. But the automatic mind learns through repetition. So you practiced, and after a few times driving, you began to relax. You kept your eyes primarily on the road in front of you, occasionally automatically scanning your mirrors and blind spots to update your picture of the situation around you, but then returning to the road. You learned to talk to passengers and listen to the radio without pulling your attention away from the road and becoming a danger to yourself or others. This is because as you learned, your deliberate brain began passing tasks off to your automatic brain, freeing itself up to pay attention to other things, like that audiobook you’ve been listening to for the past six hours, or the beautiful scenery along the highway.
This lack of paying deliberate attention to everything all the time doesn’t mean you’ve lost your ability to react to danger. To understand why let’s look at how the automatic mind processes information and makes decisions.
“Never be in Condition White” is an effectively meaningless phrase.
Your Script: Recognition-Primed Decision Making
Information about the world around us reaches our brain through our five senses, and the brain then must process and decide based on this data. Because the automatic mind is always on and always processing, it responds to this information first, and only activates the deliberate mind if it deems it necessary. It does so by a process that intuition researcher Gary Klein calls Recognition-Primed Decision Making, or pattern recognition. Essentially, the brain has a massive repertoire of stored patterns, and the automatic mind compares the information it receives from the senses to this pattern library. The brain also has a store of heuristics (which Klein calls “action scripts”)—simple automatic algorithms of decision-making designed to lead to “good enough” results in most situations, if not the best possible outcome for any specific case.
When the automatic mind matches the information it’s receiving from the senses to one of the patterns stored in its library, it applies an appropriate heuristic. This is what’s commonly called intuition or a “gut feeling.” Generally, the automatic brain does not weigh its options. Rather, it picks a good fit choice, imagines the outcome, and if it doesn’t identify a problem, it executes. Only if its mental simulation reveals a potential problem does it discard the initial heuristic and move on to the next choice. This is intuitive decision making in a nutshell. It happens very rapidly, often completely unconsciously, and most of the time achieve very good results.
The deliberate mind doesn’t even enter the decision-making process unless the automatic mind first notes a problem. My colleagues and I informally refer to this as the “risk monitor,” the process by which the automatic mind, in the process of matching sensory information to stored patterns, identifies either a known risk pattern or an unknown situation and triggers the deliberate mind to begin focusing on the problem and analyzing its potential courses of action. Of course, the automatic mind operates much faster than the deliberate mind, so it is often applying the appropriate action script (heuristic) even as the deliberate mind begins assessing the situation. To illustrate this, let’s return to our driving example.
You’re now an experienced driver, and on the highway, you’re comfortable letting your automatic mind deal with the task of actually driving and the myriad sub-tasks that actually involves. And you’re most likely comfortably driving 5-10 miles per hour over the speed limit. But the instant you recognize the shape of a potential police car up ahead by the side of the road, what happens? If you’re like most people, your attention shifts from wherever it was before and you begin focusing on the car to see if it is, in fact, the police—because your automatic mind matched that pattern of information to the known risk of a potential speeding ticket. And yet, while you’re assessing and deciding the best course of action, your foot probably shifted from the gas to the brakes, because while the slow deliberate mind is still spinning up and figuring out what to do, the fast automatic mind already applied the appropriate action script to ensure you’re under the speed limit and reduce the risk of a ticket, just in case it’s a cop. Beyond that, the deliberate mind takes control and decides whether to maintain your (new) current speed, slow down even more, or what.
“So that’s interesting and all,” you may be thinking to yourself, “but how is it relevant to self-defense?” It’s fairly simple: knowing how the brain processes information and makes decisions means we now know the key to effective threat identification and taking the appropriate immediate action. Such action, whether it’s ducking for cover, drawing and firing, running away, or any other response lies in the automatic mind. That’s the part of your mind that is always active, always scanning, always comparing what it sees to known patterns to identify the appropriate response.
So, much loved as they are in the firearms community, what this means is that the situational awareness interpretation of Cooper’s Colors can only describe the deliberate mind’s level of attention to a given potential problem. But given that the deliberate mind can only pay attention to one thing at a time, and takes significant energy to focus, the adage (and occasional admonishment) to “Never be in Condition White” is effectively meaningless.
We’re almost always in “Condition White,” because the deliberate mind is busy focusing on the task at hand and not scanning for threats
It is all but impossible to actively scan for threats while talking on the phone or finding a debit card in a wallet at the ATM, or doing any of the thousands of tasks our deliberate minds must focus on throughout the day. Trying to do both at once just makes us ineffective at both, just as trying to pay attention to everything makes us bad drivers. To expect otherwise is unrealistic and potentially dangerous.
We’ll help you take better care of those dick-skinners.
Training should focus on the ability to capture relevant information, identify potential threats, and respond heuristically.
Instead of this unhelpful misinterpretation of Cooper’s Colors, then, I suggest that we in the firearms and self-defense community begin moving away from a useless “constant vigilance” philosophy and focus instead on training shooters to let the automatic mind shoulder the burden of identifying and responding to threats.
We don’t respond properly to threats when:
a) we don’t perceive the relevant information because our sensors are directed elsewhere;
b) our brains don’t interpret that information correctly to alert us to the threat; or
c) our brains don’t immediately know the appropriate action script or heuristic with which to respond to an identified threat.
This is what “Condition Yellow” is really talking about.
Thus, training should focus both on building habits that increase the likelihood of the sensors capturing relevant information, and then on building known patterns and action scripts in the automatic mind to correctly identify and respond to potential threats. The former is as simple as ensuring we aren’t walking around staring at our phones with headphones in, oblivious to the world around us. We need to ensure our sensors can capture the relevant information around us, which is what “Condition Yellow” is really talking about.
Without the next steps, without making sure the mind can put the pieces together and respond appropriately, looking and listening does nothing for us. And that aspect is much more difficult, and generally overlooked by those talking about “mindset” and “awareness.” Violent encounters often occur much too quickly for the deliberate mind ever to react and make conscious decisions, so we must set ourselves up for success by training our automatic minds to spot threats and apply the appropriate heuristic for that situation.
What does that look like? Well, as mentioned, the automatic mind learns through repetition and practice. Taking a class on indicators of violent intent is great, but it does absolutely nothing to build those patterns into the automatic mind’s library of stored threat patterns. Repetitive scenario training and simulations are probably your best bet for safe and effective training (which is no more a new concept than is stress inoculation). It’s time-consuming and resource intensive, but the military uses such training to great effect to make threat identification and response almost instinctive. When a Soldier hears an explosion in a combat zone, the hundreds or thousands of similar times he or she’s been through that scenario in training means he or she’s unlikely to freeze in indecision. The automatic mind already knows what to do: take cover, identify the source, and continue as the situation dictates.
Athletes, law enforcement officers, pilots, and many others working in fields that require the ability to instantly react to changing circumstances at a rate much faster than the deliberate brain can respond all use variations of scenario practice and repetition to build that automaticity. It works, and it works well.
Action scripts must be built before-hand.
Cooper’s Color Code: Codify It
If you don’t have the time and resources for high-quality resource training, there are other options. The goal is just to build the patterns and responses into the automatic mind, which can be done visually. After you’ve taken that class on threat indicators, watch lots of videos of violent attacks (which can be found on YouTube) and practice spotting those indicators in real situations.
See if you can figure out who and where and how the attack will happen before it does. Then reinforce that with visualization: run through mental scenarios where you see and respond to specific indicators as appropriate. Build those action scripts, and attach them to sensory patterns, so you’re not having to stop and think your way through every decision when action and reaction are being measured against each other, when every tenth of a second counts.
This is critical:
If you’ve never even imagined doing something, you cannot do it.
The brain has no mental simulation to judge against during its intuitive decision-making process. With the exceptions of basic instinctive heuristics like fight/flight/freeze, an action script will literally not even appear as an option to your automatic mind unless you build it beforehand. Visualization implants the script in the brain, and repeated visualization means the automatic mind is more likely to draw upon it as a first or second choice option when it identifies the associated sensory pattern. If you can’t do scenario practice, you must do visualization practice.
The instant you stop to think is the instant you’ve lost.
As You See So Shall You Compete
These same principles can be applied to competitive shooting, as well as defensive situations.
Many high-level competitors visualize each stage before running it. All they’re doing is prepping the automatic mind, so their deliberate mind is free to focus on deliberate decisions in response to potential unexpected and changing conditions. The time saved in decision making, by ensuring the automatic mind already knows which targets to shoot and in what order, adds up over the course of a stage and a match. New competitors hesitate because they don’t have the sensory patterns and action scripts mastered that allow them to flow through a course. Experienced competitors just execute.
Many top-level competitors, in any form of competition from shooting to martial arts to ball sports, will tell you that the instant you stop to think is the instant you’ve lost. Whether you’re playing for a title, or prize money, or the higher stakes of life and death, the mechanics of decision making remain the same. But to take advantage of them, you have to do more than give lip service to a vague concept like “situational awareness” or “vigilance.” You have to set yourself up for success by training your automatic mind.
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Col. Cooper himself fought gains the ineffective (incorrect) reinterpretation of his Code.
Cooper’s Color Code Correct
An interesting note: this mental preparation of the automatic mind before the fight kicks off is pretty much exactly what Cooper intended with his original version of the Color Code. He focused on the psychological difficulty of the decision to kill, but the principles of decision making apply exactly as I’ve described. Col. Cooper spent decades combatting the ineffective reinterpretation of his Code so commonly heard today, because “constant vigilance” just doesn’t work. If you’re going to teach Cooper’s Colors, don’t teach it as advocating a mythical and unattainable concept of situational awareness. Teach it as the man intended: mental preparation for the decision to press the trigger. A tool to set your automatic mind up for success.
– AH –
Acknowledgements: A number of firearms, martial arts, and self-defense industry professionals and other subject matter experts reviewed this article for clarity and accuracy prior to publication. In no particular order, the author would especially like to thank Claude Werner (The Tactical Professor), Jon Hauptman (PHLster), Morgan Atwood (BFE Labs), James Quigg (Fight IQ), Benn Coren (Environmental Testing & Inspection), Keith Finch (GAT Marketing), Brandon Foat (Minnesota Sword Club), Rob Reed, Stephen Bell, and Will Morgan, among others, for their input and feedback during the writing and editing process.
 Jeff Cooper, “Commentaries,” Vol. 12, No. 5.
 This model is discussed in many books and articles, including works by Sloman (1996), Stanovich (1999), and Hogarth (2001), but is most well-known from Daniel Kahneman’s book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow” (2011). The now-standard “System 1 and System 2” terminology itself originated in Stanovich and West (2000), but for clarity’s sake I have chosen to use the informal terminology of “automatic mind” and “deliberate mind” to refer to the exact same System 1 and System 2, respectively. This model of cognition has been widely applied in fields ranging from social psychology to behavioral economics.
 Well, sometimes. The deliberate mind sometimes uses the same intuitive decision-making process as the automatic mind, too. It’s a bit weird and confusing, but it’s also not terribly relevant to our purposes here.
 A disclaimer: I am not a cognitive neuroscientist, neurologist, or neurophysiologist. While it is my understanding that there *is* neuroscientific evidence to back up this model of cognition, from Paul Glimcher and others in the cross-disciplinary field of neuroeconomics, I will leave that examination to subject matter experts and constrain my comments to my own areas of expertise. Therefore, I will not attempt to describe the specific mechanisms in the nervous system by which information reaches the brain and the various parts of the brain itself that sort through this information and make decisions, and will comment only on how this is applied in terms of cognitive psychology and applied decision science.
 These heuristics are built up through experience, by trial and error and practice over one’s lifetime. Some basic heuristics even appear to be hardwired into our brains through evolutionary processes, such as fight/flight/freeze responses to potential danger.
 Or maybe not. I don’t know how interested you are in decision science.