In this article I will explain why Coopers Colours Codes is no longer an effective training tool and provide you with the exact method I used to improve my awareness skills which allowed me stay safe in a police career that spanned 17 years service. The technique I use is called the 'Threat Scanning Method' and it is supported by science and is based on techniques from advanced driving and also training for the visually impaired
The Issues With Coopers Colour Codes
Coopers Colour codes was one of the first things I learned as a police officer as a method to keep me safe, alert and recognise potential threats to myself and others. Some 20 years later I know it is still taught across the globe as a learning base for awareness in confrontational situations and it was originally developed by a pistol instructor. It is now heavily used for general personal safety training across the globe as a way for people to recognise which 'states of awareness' they are in.
For those that don't know the codes used in the Cooper system are used to describe the awareness levels of individuals and they are broken down into 4 groups or colours.
Code White- This was always taught to me as being completely switched off to threat, un aware of any dangers around them
Code Yellow- This is what most would called 'switched on'. A person in this state would be aware that in alleyways there could be a threat to their safety if they walk down them, they are aware of the aggressive male in the pub even if they are stood across the bar from them. It is the state that any cop or self defence student should always be in when out and about.
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Code Orange- This is the state you get in when a threat starts to emerge, perhaps that guy has moved to your side of the bar. Perhaps a group of lads have walked over to your side of the road as you are walking home. It is the state of a potential emerging threat.
Code Red- This is the fight or flight mode. In simple terms it is when you are involved in an incident that requires physical action fast! Either you are going to fight and or you are going to run away to avoid harm.
You can actually watch Jeff Cooper himself explain his colour codes here:
So there you have it, this is pretty much how Coopers Colour codes are taught across the planet to law enforcement and self defence students and I understand why. It is a simple way to discuss how people are switched off to dangers around them, however I personally have for many years now had a great deal of doubt that the system is accurate or in fact correct.
Now Coopers focus is heavily based on firearm usage but he actually states in the video that "if you are in zone white when you are attacked the only thing that will save you is the incompetence of the attacker". He also talks about whilst we might want to be in Zone or code white it will never happen in this time due to the turbulent nature of society. Things I actually disagree with because he places a heavy and unscientific emphasis on the personal ability to shift zones. Which I will prove is wrong.
Many will argue that this system was devised for pistol/firearms which again may be the case however Cooper himself states that this system can be used for all confrontations and as you will see it is actually being taught for personal safety training . If you watch the video I feel that the Cooper system places a heavy emphasis on 2 things:
1. Your actual readiness to shoot/ fight with someone
2. The decision to actually shoot/ fight with someone.
In opposition to the Colour Codes I feel our levels of awareness are far more complex and are not self governed and as I will show you in this article the Cooper Colour Codes now look as antiquated as the video above.
Awareness in Self Protection
If you go to any self defence instructor and ask them what they feel is the most important aspect of self defence the vast majority will say "awareness" and they are right to do so. It is the most basic skill we possess. By having good awareness skills we can spot potential threats to our safety and take action to avoid them. Yet despite this being a 'key' self defence skill very few people actually teach awareness and in fact I have even heard some people say that 'you cant teach it' and even if it is taught the vast majority will revert back to Coopers Colour codes and basically discuss the colour codes and then expect people to suddenly become 'aware 'of threats around them by expecting them to turn on awareness like a switch when it simply doesnt work like this.
We really have failed as self defence instructors to help students to become more aware and I personally think Coopers Colour Codes have become an unscientific 'crutch' which makes the life of Self defence instructors easier so they can get onto the 'fun' stuff. If awareness is so important why has no one spent any time on the subject. It really is annoying that so many self defence and especially martial arts instructors have 'washed' over this key area of personal development and rely on the colour codes as a 'go to guide' which I am certain they were never intended to be.
What is Awareness?
If we are actually going to write about awareness we need to learn exactly what it is.
Part of the failure of Coopers colour codes is the vast over estimation of our concious ability, it is based on a system that makes out that we are somehow in control of our states of awareness, when in fact we have a far more complex friend running the show on a day to day basis- our subconscious.
The subconscious brain is a very powerful tool because it pretty much takes care of everyday life for you. Only when your concious brain requires you to think about things does it actually need to. This is exactly what happens when you learn to drive. At first there seems to be hundreds of complex actions to consider- what gear should I be in, how much pressure should I place on the clutch, mirrors, speed, cars around me, lanes, road signs and the list goes on and on. However we know that after a few years we can get into a car and just drive as if it is second nature, but wait what about all those complex things we need to do that were once so hard, yes you got it, the subconscious brain is taking care of business while we talk to our passengers and in some cases even on a hands free phone kit.
When I think back to my years in the police what was going on when I responded to a 999 call. On route I would be using the police radio, driving at speed with sirens on and blue lights flashing, breaking speed restrictions and the same road laws that are designed to keep us safe, avoiding cars and all this at the same time as processing key information about the incident I was travelling to, often asking questions so I could acquire more information. It begs the question- who was driving the car?
Of course we know that it was myself doing this but in essence I am a machine, a very complex one at that. At work in my brain is a wide range of elements that you could call systems or even secondary brains.
Computer scientist and artificial intelligence specialist Marvin Minsky suggested that human minds may be a collection of enormous numbers of machine like, connected sub agents that are themselves mindless. This is of course just one view point but it is referred to as the 'society of mind' framework. All the small parts add up to for a society that allows us to complete very complex tasks. In his book "The society of mind" he writes:
'Thousands and, perhaps millions of little processes must be involved in how we anticipate, imagine, plan, predict and prevent-and yet all this proceeds so automatically what we regard it as ordinary common sense'
However the issue behind this theory is that it is all too civilised. After 20 years in the police I know that after 5 pints of Stella Artois common sense goes out of the window. I have seen people I regard as rational and calm individuals change in the presence of alcohol and that is before you even bring into the discussion ego.
In 1920 Sigmund Freud suggested three competing parts in his model of the psyche: the id (instinctive), the ego (realistic and organised) and the super ego ( critical and moralizing). Other models have also been introduced throughout the years however I personally prefer the descriptions used by Neuroscientist David Eagleman in his book Incognito in which he describes us as having a dominant 2 party system of our brain- Reason and Emotion. Regardless of which model of thinking you use it is clear that we (as in our concious self) are actually not alone in operating our day to day activities, instead we have a vast array of complexities that govern our behaviour and abilities.
Violence as Tool or an Emotion
If we now recognise that our brains are clearly very complex it brings into discussion the validity of Coopers Colour codes. I will be the first to state I have never actually read the source material of Cooper Colour codes(only watched the video) and although I possibly should I dont need to because of how generalised the method has become(it is this generalisation that I am against), there are enough texts out there to state that whatever the original goal of Pistol Instructor 'Jeff Cooper' was when he created them, the codes have been referenced in the manner I described earlier for a long time and BAFTA award winning self defence expert Geoff Thompson even refers to them the same way in his excellent book "Dead or Alive". Whatever the codes started as they have ended up as a personal safety training tool
The thing we should be concerned with ourselves is if this method of teaching valid or is it as fictional as 'no touch knock outs'?
In my personal experience of violence I have come to the conclusion that violence is a direct result of 2 things. It is either a tool or a vehicle to gain or obtain something- be it a physical item such as a wallet (as in a robbery) or even an pleasure such as when a rapist uses violence to rape a female. The other formation of violence comes as a direct result of emotion. For example a person will attack another out of nothing but pure anger, in this way violence becomes the physical manifestation of that emotion. Whilst this is an over simplistic definition it has been the source of my own awareness skills for a long time- and not Coopers Colour Codes.
My personal system of awareness is actually based on not understanding my own levels of awareness but actually on my own levels of knowledge and my ability to increase the chances of 'seeing' a threat. Let me explain:
Coopers version is all about 'states of awareness', as if we can actually control our own state. In many ways we can but on only on a momentary basis. We often hear a parent tell a child to "be careful" when they are engaging in an activity that could have negative consequences. As such you see a child often stop and look around them to form some form of 'risk assessment' based on the dangers. However in most cases the child carries on with their behaviour until a parent physically intervenes because the child cannot see or understand the consequences of risk. It is the child who with prompting has actually looked around and assessed the risk to themselves.
Think about that for a second- The child has been prompted (received a parents command) they then stop for a second and assess the risks and the child takes one of 2 actions. They either alter their behaviour or carry on. This takes place in a split second and the child who may not even be able to talk due to their age will make a decision. We know that it is not them making this decision on a concious level but their subconscious. What happens if they hurt themselves? Well if you are a parent you know that they are not likely to do this again!
On a practical level my 2 year old daughter shows me this in action all the time. On one specific occasion she decided to start hitting her 5 year old brother with a toy. He told her to stop but she didnt, I told her to stop but she didnt! Eventually her brother took the toy off her. However not long after she started again until the brother pushed her away and she fell to the floor crying. Guess what, she didnt do it again. She has learned that if she hits her brother he will push her away.
Everyday life is full of these learning experiences- from touching a hot radiator to eating foods we dont like and all these decisions go on behind the scenes in our subconscious.
Coopers Colour codes ignores the vast power of our subconscious and actually requires the student to self monitor their awareness levels and 'switch on' in the face of danger. However the critical element here is the one thing that Coopers codes miss out. It relies on either being told the need to 'switch on' as in the parent child model or the person does the switching 'on' themselves!
The ability to 'switch on' requires the person to have recognised the potential threat in the first place or live in a rather bizarre relaxed state of self imposed readiness. But how does a person actually spot a threat in the first place, what process is behind this?
The Problem With Vision
We all know that the eyes do not actually see, instead the mind makes up a picture- a 3D Model if you like as it processes the data and we know that our vision isnt perfect even if we have perfect eyes.
One third of the human brain is devoted to our vision however it is not the movie style recreation we think it is. Just because we see something does not mean we have actually seen it. Magicians have specialised in exploiting the vulnerability of the vision of humans, they very often perform a trick in front of us and we have no idea they have because they have lead us to focus our vision elsewhere. Focus is the key!
In essence we only see what we focus on and we only focus on things we want to. Take driving a car again! We are driving along and the car in front slams its brakes on- we then do the same without any concious thought. Before we have consciously become aware of this our sub conscious has taken over and taken action. It knows that we need to brake or we will have an accident and before you become aware your foot is pressed on the brakes and you screech to a halt. This happens even if we are talking to the wife about dinner (granted if you are travelling too close and too fast you simply hit the car in front). Let us take a look at our focus in action.
The Invisible Gorilla
Chances are you will have seen the Invisible Gorilla Test before but if not here it is, please take it as it will go some way to explaining my issues with Coopers Codes, just watch this short video and go along with the test:
If you did the test you may or may not have seen the Gorilla coming into shot. The crux of this is that it was an experiment in selective attention. Basically in a University experiment students were asked to count how many passes were made and less than half the students in this test actually saw the Gorilla walking in the game. This 'selective attention' is the main reason that Coopers Colour Codes falls down it is based on the critical assumption that just because you are 'switched on' you will see a threat. This is simply not true.
This places the key to awareness actually on education, experience and visual skills and not your personal levels of awareness! This fires directly against the current and over used approach of the Colour codes and actually places a far greater emphasis on the requirement of experience within situations that require critical observation. In essence if you dont know what your looking for you are unlikely to see it!
So by telling people to 'switch on' or go to code yellow just wont cut it unless there is an accompanying educational process which tells people what they need to be looking for and even then there should be procedures in place to protect your failures in observation and awareness.
I have personally been present when victims have been described as in 'code white' after an attack which is totally unfair and has no scientific basis whatsoever. In boxing there is a saying "its the punch that you dont see coming that knocks you out' and personal safety is the same. It is the attack that you dont see coming that you cannot avoid!
The Reticular Activating System and Its Use In Personal Safety
If we acknowledge based on science and experience that Coopers Colour Codes makes no sense at all and is actually pointless to teach what are the alternatives?
Many years ago I started to research 'awareness' and discovered part of our brain that has involvement in our states of alertness and it is called the RAS or the Reticular Activating System
The Reticular Activating System is actually part of the brain that governs our state of awareness. It is the thing that gets switched off when we undergo general anaesthetic however studies show that it also governs periods of high alertness.
Whilst this post is not an indepth look at the RAS it is clear that you cannot go around teaching people to be in certain states of awareness when in actual fact this is totally wrong because it is known that during high states of awareness blood flows to the RAS. Coopers colour codes (or at least how they are taught) seems to imply that we can send blood to this area of the brain on demand.
So what happens to the colour codes? Get rid of them. This might sound cruel but why keep driving home a process that doesnt make sense?
Over the years I have heard a lot of time people critiqued for their lack of awareness. The classic example of this is the female walking home alone at night down a dark alleyway. Sure she knows this isnt right but unless she was to have a negative experience she is likely to believe 'it will never happen to me'.
The funny thing is, statistically she is actually pretty right! The likelihood that she will be attacked is far less than most self defence instructors would admit. But what if as she was walking a male suddenly appeared behind her and she felt and then saw his presence. As blood flowed to her Reticular Awareness System her state of awareness would be heightened and she is in what traditionally could be classed as code orange with the potential to move to code red. In reality even if this was just a random guy walking down the alleyway the female would likely to have had such a poor frightening experience she would change routes in future.
The key take away from this is that even with zero knowledge of awareness levels or Colour codes her own body has taken over for her. The subconscious will have registered news stories over the years of rapes and murders and like a bolt of lightening has put her in the zone ready for fight or flight.
Experience is a great teacher but you need to have had that experience. If the female in the above scenario had no personal levels of awareness or risk ( code white) then she would not have felt fear, her RAS would not have kicked in. But experience tells me that even without instruction we have an inbuilt defence mechanism that does well without much help.
The traditional and often evangelist self protection instructor will tell female students to avoid dark alleyways and its easy to see the sense in this. The truth though is that a person can be attacked in any location where 3 components come together. These are of course the following:
Note that it is not levels of awareness that serve as a method for the potential victim to either avoid an offender or the location of an offence or remove themselves from a situation. Instead it is all to do with knowledge of possible outcomes. For door supervisors the key would be to remove the offender from the location prior to an assault taking place. For other people it might be getting a taxi home as opposed to walking. This has nothing to do with codes and everything to do with tangible threat analysis which is dependant on the speed of the decision can be done either consciously or subconsciously.
Again this has nothing to do with the state of awareness you are in but is actually all about the ability to spot the offender or the offence location. This is knowledge or experience and sometimes a combination of both. However to do both requires visual skills!
Awareness v Education
By now I hope you are starting to see just how pointless even discussing awareness using Colour codes is. There has been for a long time now the misguided belief that if you tell a person about Jeff Coopers colour codes then in some way shape and form you will magically transform the student and they will instantly switch on and be able to spot potential threats. The relaxed and experienced doorman or police officer will be able to spot a troublemaker far easier than the 'wired' up rookie desperate to impress.
This again has nothing to do with codes and everything to do with something known as Combinatorial Explosion. Although you may be unfamiliar with the term it is something that separates computers that play chess from grand chess masters. It is the ability to see things far beyond that which normal people/ a computer can see and it comes as a result of experience.
An example of this is the doorman that refuses a person entry. To the bystander this may seem cruel and often goes against the logic of anyone, however the years of experience has taught the doorman that this guy is too animated, to muscled up and too heavily intoxicated to be inside his venue. The seasoned doorman knows this guy is full of cocaine, steroids and alcohol and he doenst want to be dealing with him later at his venue. He knows this male has trouble written all over him. The rookie would have let him inside only to be fighting with him later.
In the book Bounce by Matthew Syed the subject of performance is thoroughly examined and we see experience is talked about greatly. In essence expert knowledge isnt gained overnight and it is sadly ignored by most martial arts and self defence instructors.
The Importance of Vision in Personal Safety
As we have seen already the colour codes have no basis in science and instead we have see that there is a complex operations ongoing with our subconscious which has a basis in experience also which is trying to keep us safe.
However we have also discovered that focus is actually a key component in 'awareness'. Just because we are looking for something does not mean we will see another key event such as the Gorilla in the experiment or the magician palming a coin. We only see what we are focused on and what we focus on is largely dictated to us by our subconscious programming.
The Phantom of the Opera-
I recently had this experience when I travelled to London and went to see 'The Phantom of the Opera'. Years of going to the theatre had taught me to focus on the stage where the actors were and it took my wife to nudge me to show me the Phantom behind me on wires and above the stage! Of course if I had known he would be doing this then I would have looked. It is this unique combination of knowledge, experience and vision that actually dictate our awareness and not ourselves.
The Threat Scanning Method
Earlier I told you about the method I had used throughout my career and as I developed it I believe I got better at using it. I call it the Threat Scanning Method and it comprises of 3 main parts:
The first part of this method is heavily based on knowledge. This can either be taught externally or self taught. The key here is to learn more about the potential threats that you may or will face. I will give 2 examples:
First consider a door supervisor- any course where you are running door supervisor training should include 'awareness' however just by telling people about the states of awareness using colour codes is not going to help anyone. There should be a heavy focus on the types of threats doormen face. This can be as detailed as you like and draw upon real life events if you can. I would recommend you make the accounts as detailed as possible and this will help the students to visualise the scenario. Only by going over as many potential hazards as you can will the student embed this knowledge. From an incident with a gun to a guy concealing a screw driver. It important to keep these incidents factual.
On the other hand if I was teaching a group of middle aged women I would be using factual stories around hazards. Such as the girl who was stabbed on her way home when she took a short cut through the woods to a murder in a secluded car park at night. This is not scare tactics by the way, you are actually using real incidents to re enforce your training and help to embed their personal levels of knowledge.
You see this is the key difference here- you are actually teaching the student about things to 'BE AWARE OF' rather than just telling them that in certain situations they should switch on. You are teaching people based on the individual threats they may face. This is not a catch all event, you need to specifically teach people based on their needs and not just'wash over' things.
The next phase of the Threat Scanning Method involves experience. For this I recommend scenario training. Having taught the student about real life incidents their personal knowledge has already grown. The scenarios can be as detailed as you want them to be as long as the key elements are covered. Perhaps a guy trying to get into a club is refused and he pulls a screw driver out. The scenario will provide the experience that when you refuse a person entry they may have a weapon on them that you do not know about.
Whist this may seem obvious to some it wont be to a lot of people. But by adding reality based scenarios to training you are re enforcing the knowledge taught in step 1.
Although I know many instructors out there already using steps 1 and 2, I have never heard anyone teach visual training techniques. This however is the key and as we have seen already just because you aren't looking at things doesn't mean you will be able to see something.
Rather than fix your eyes on an area you need to scan the area in your visual field rather than just look ahead. For example if I am walking home at night I will start to scan. Instead of keeping my head down I will look in the distance, at the alleyway entrance up ahead, at the car reversing out of a driveway and onto the footpath in front etc ect. Most people will either have their head looking at their phone or be staring into space.
This is not the same as being aware, this is all about focus!
If you were to consider Coopers colour codes I would be in state white- why? Because I know that there is next to zero chance of being attacked. I dont need to impose some kind of 'alert state'. Common sense tells me I will be ok.
However as my scanning picks up the shadows of the gang standing in the alleyway my subconscious has made me aware of this and based on my training I know that there could be a chance they say or do something. Rather than take this risk I make a sensible decision and cross over the road.
Please note that this has nothing to do with any 'code' I have simply made a risk assessment based on something I have seen.
The tick here is to learn to scan effortlessly and to do this you can practise all the time. In the car, walking or running own the road etc. What starts off as a complex task soon becomes the norm .
Observational and Situational Links
One of the key things I am looking for is situational or observational links and this is what you want to teach your students.
An observational link is quite easy to learn and is part of the Threat Scanning Method. Think about driving again, a ball comes into the road as you drive. What do you think could be coming after the ball? A child.
Personal safety at any level is the same and if you see a gang on a street corner drinking then you know from experience that this group could cause issues for you as you walk past.
A situational link is slightly different because it involves your participation in a situation as it happens. For example if we look at the door staff refusing entry we know that in that situation the male may respond in a few different ways such as simply leaving, shouting abuse, trying to force their way in, trying again to sneak in or even brandishing a weapon. Because you have this knowledge your prepared.
Putting it All Together
The goal of the threat scanning method is and always has been simple, to remain relaxed and calm. This allows me to make sensible decisions based on ever changing information. The way I would like to explain this is to use a standard example, as an officer I would often turn up to incidents with people injured and screaming. Most often they would be drunk after a big fight has gone on and tensions are still running high. Coopers Codes really should dictate I be in state orange or even red. In truth I am relaxed but focused- How?
Because I was aware of my role and responsibility I could quickly assess dangers and threats as well as gaining key witness information. I have scanned the scene and have seen the guy with blood on his knuckles.
This has nothing to do with any state or code of awareness and has everything to do with knowledge, visual recognition and observational links.
But I have Taught People and They Still Put Themselves at Risk
Now here is the issue, we often refer to people as being unaware or actually in code white because despite training courses and knowledge they still put themselves at risk. This is actually a really poor description.
The person who takes risks despite knowledge of those risks has made a decision either consciously or subconsciously that the benefits or gains of this decision outweigh the risks.
There are hundreds of domestic violence victim's who stay with their partners despite knowing they are at risk of being killed one day. There are many young girls that walk home alone at night and down darkened alleyways even though they are aware of the risk of being attacked.
Note this is not the same as being unaware, this is actually a choice made.
I started this article by explaining that the modern use of Coopers Colour Codes is wrong and has no real use in self protection. We have looked at the reasons behind this and suggested that the Threat Scanning Method is a far better way of training awareness.
My issues with the colour codes is that they are now used as a training tool and a descriptive method and this is really inaccurate. Just because a victim didn't see the attacker doesn't mean they were 'switched off' and just because the doorman got stabbed doesn't mean he was not focused on his job. As humans we are very complex organisms and by constantly referring to an outdated model of 'awareness' analysis fails to take into account the human element.
I often wonder why the fascination around these 'colour codes' but I think it is all about people. We all find it easier to label others and certainly criticise people and I think in many ways Coopers Colour Codes has been a way to criticise others. Do you view CCTV videos online and place blame on the victim?
The other aspect that the codes fail to recognise is the ability of the offender. Very often an offender will hide or actually disguise their techniques and just like a magician people fail to spot this.
The video below is an example where the victim had no chance
You could argue that if she was in a heightened state of awareness she may have been able to react and seems she had a hood up but are we need to teach personal safety with some actually reality and normalisation. If people are always on pins of being attacked then personal safety has failed to do its job and that is to help people feel more safe and confident and not make them feel in fear!
One of the key aspects of self defence training is getting people to feel empowered and the Threat Scanning Model works because it is relaxed, after all it is just a way of seeing and only when we actually see something that catches our attention based on knowledge or experience do we need to take action and even then we might not want or need to but I personally feel the more relaxed we are the more likely you can spot dangers.
The actual video of Jeff Cooper talks about muggers selecting victims based on stature etc. This is true, we know that people who are not confident or are vulnerable will slouch, drop their heads and look an easy target. Self Defence training empowers people and tells them that if they are attacked they can and do have the power to fight back, and if they make key changes they are likely to avoid trouble and stature is part of this. But that is different than being 'aware or ready to fight back'.
To finish I personally believe that Coopers Colour Codes is an outdated model of analysis. We know from modern science that we do not think like the colour codes and encouraging people to be in some form of readiness is not needed. Through quality training and information you will be able to enjoy a relaxed lifestyle where you are equally ready to defend yourself and take action.
To finish off and for a bit of fun our last video showcases the famous scene from the Pink Panther films where the Inspector comes home. I personally feel that Coopers Codes want everyone to be in that state of awareness!
Take care and stay safe