Condition Yellow: Nature or Nurture?

keep-calm-and-stay-observantMost shooters are at least dimly aware of the “color codes” of awareness (White/Yellow/Orange/Red) that Jeff Cooper popularized.

If you read Jeff Cooper’s wikipedia entry, it defines Condition Yellow by quoting The Carry Book: Minnesota Edition, 2011:

Yellow: Relaxed alert. No specific threat situation. Your mindset is that “today could be the day I may have to defend myself”. You are simply aware that the world is a potentially unfriendly place and that you are prepared to defend yourself, if necessary. You use your eyes and ears, and realize that “I may have to shoot today”. You don’t have to be armed in this state, but if you are armed you should be in Condition Yellow. You should always be in Yellow whenever you are in unfamiliar surroundings or among people you don’t know. You can remain in Yellow for long periods, as long as you are able to “Watch your six.” (In aviation 12 o’clock refers to the direction in front of the aircraft’s nose. Six o’clock is the blind spot behind the pilot.) In Yellow, you are “taking in” surrounding information in a relaxed but alert manner, like a continuous 360 degree radar sweep. As Cooper put it, “I might have to shoot.”

That sounds pretty straightforward.  Be aware and be prepared.  Good advice for everyone.  The reality can be much more complicated.

Some related but not necessarily connected thoughts on the subject:

  • While newly-aware shooters mistakenly view potential threats as a binary proposition (“I am being attacked with deadly force” vs. “everything is completely safe”), the reality is that there is far more gray area in between those two polar opposite positions than those positions themselves occupy.
  • Environment & context are major factors in assessing threats; both factors have nearly infinite ways of manifesting themselves.  While practicing responses to likely scenarios, it is hard to duplicate the mindset of a man on the street.  When you look at the many different ways that a given scenario (for example: “you see a man with a gun on a public street…”) might be clarified or changed by environment & context (How is the man dressed?  What is his demeanor?  What is his attention focused on?), the risk of training yourself into one-size-fits-all responses is very real.  And misinterpreting a situation can get someone killed.
  • Some people more observant than others.  It might be related to more-developed interpersonal skills, it might be due to greater attention being paid to small visual clues.  But some people are innately more observant to a degree that cannot be compensated for with training.  Training will make such people even more effective.
  • Some people take a “checklist approach” to being alert.  “Sit with view of the door, check.  Check-six every xx seconds, check.  Deliberately make eye contact with people in the area, check.”  While there is nothing inherently wrong with checklists, it does encourage predictability and complacency.  Some people will slide into the bad habit of performing their checklist and then turning off their active observation.
  • On a related issue, some people put on a semi-public display of being armed and serving as a “sheepdog”; it might just be their friends who are “in the know” but it creates a performer/audience dynamic.  For such people, the bandwidth to maintain their act takes away from their ability to be truly observant.
  • Observation requires a person to observe, and a subject to be observed.  No matter how alert an observer is, if they do not recognize or correctly interpret what they are seeing, they cannot process the information.  During the World Wars, anti-aircraft gunners were given books of aircraft silhouettes to memorize, to increase the chances of the gunner correctly identifying a legitimate target and a friendly aircraft.  How one would get practice in offering the correct response to ambiguous levels of threat is a question I do not know the answer to.  The fact that such training would be seen as “less sexy” than range time might make it less popular than traditional shooting schools.  I would imagine the Secret Service has a way to train agents to assess potential threats, but the average gun owner does not have access to such resources.  And a Secret Service agent has much greater legal latitude to respond to a threat than the average citizen, making their training simpler.
  • Modern life has more to be observed & managed than ever before.  Clueless millenials (but I repeat myself) walking into streetlamps while texting is only the most obvious example.  All of us are being bombarded by stimuli during every waking hour.  While scientists tell us that our brain & the way we use it are evolving, we are still working with fundamentally the same hardware that our great-grandparents had in a much less complex world.  The software is changing, but that is always a slow, reactive process.  Tech entrepreneur Scott Klososky gives a keynote speech on “the Outboard Brain” where smartphones have changed the old way that we looked for answers (“rack our brain to determine if we know the answer and search until we find the answer”) to a new thought process (“rack our brain to determine if we know the answer, and then stop thinking and reach for Google”).
  • Some things demand more attention than others.  If you go to a restaurant and engage in a serious conversation with your significant other, your ability to be observant will suffer.  Conversely, if you remain observant, you might need to break eye contact with your significant other in the midst of a serious conversation.  Either situation can have unpleasant consequences; while not paying attention to your significant other is probably not dangerous to your physical well-being, the consequences might make you wish you faced a mugger instead.
  • Cultural differences greatly affect what will/will not trigger our radars.  Behavior that city people encounter every day without alarm can & will cause rural/suburban people to freak out a little.  Or more than a little.  Whether that is due to suburbanites’ oversensitivity or to urbanites’ raising the threshold of what constitutes a threat is not for me to say.  Most of the people in the subway car that Bernhard Goetz rode on just sat there and let themselves be robbed.  Previously-mugged and newly vigilant Goetz shot 4 muggers with 5 bullets (including 1 missed shot), despite the muggers not having weapons in their hands.  They had 3 screwdrivers amongst them, however, and none was a tradesman which might justify having them.
  • In his book, The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker talks about the role that intuition & fear play in protecting us.  Despite the misguided anti-gun sentiments he deposits throughout the book, it is very valuable in helping people to understand that fear and intuition are sending us messages that we pick up on subliminally but not consciously.  Even if we don’t know why something is wrong with a situation, we can sense that there is something wrong.  He encourages readers to take counsel of their fear.

It seems like a 3-part equation: Observation+Analysis+Response=Survival.  No one component is enough to ensure your survival.  All play a role in making “Condition Yellow” effective.

With all of that said, how does someone improve their observational skills & preparedness?

Neither Crapgame or I are an experts in training observational techniques.  But there are books and websites on body language that can help you assess people more accurately, and train your mind to be more observant.

There are things that you can do on your own.  For instance, when out in public, do you deliberately try to identify which people are carrying concealed guns?  Are you constantly assessing nearby cover & concealment opportunities?  And, are you going to the next level and training yourself to pick out details that would let you describe a person to law enforcement?   You can also “gamify” the process of observation to make it more interesting and productive; make yourself identify 3 things about every person you see.

On the analysis & response side of the equation, there are reputable trainers that can deliver valuable shoot/don’t-shoot training.  This type of training is very important, and is usually an eye-opener for first-time participants.

Simply having a gun is not enough to keep a person safe.  You need software, as well as hardware.


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