The Second Filter — Cultural Tradition

By: Christopher Brennan

As we continue to explore the five filters of the Orientation phase of the OODA Loop, I will take up the filter of Cultural Tradition.  I refer to it as the “second filter” because it’s the second I describe when I teach this topic.  I like to progress from Genetic Heritage through Cultural Traditions, Previous Experience, New Information, and finally Analysis and Synthesis, in that order.  I use this method because it takes us from a filter we have no control over (our genetics have changed little in 200,000 years) through a series of filters we are progressively more in control of.  I make this distinction now so that we don’t look at the filters as sequential; they are not.  These filters can be thought of as happening on a quantum level where perception, both conscious and unconscious, is being processed in all filters at the same time.  My distinction of an “order” is arbitrary, but based on a method I find useful for beginning to teach this concept to folks who have little exposure to John Boyd’s concept.  If you haven’t already, I do suggest you go back and read “‘Reality’ is the Only Word in the Language that Should Always Be Used in Quotes” and “The First Filter – Genetic Heritage.”

I want to remind you that the purpose of focusing on these filters is to develop our ability to Thrive.  When we are thriving we are flourishing, we are finding ourselves experiencing a state of optimal experience.  This is the condition that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as Flow in his book by the same name.  It is the experience of Fingerspitzengefühl that Erwin Rommel displayed when he fought his division across France, and that John Boyd alludes to being the objective of maximizing our ability to use the OODA loop.  It is the state of optimal effect displayed by the members of the Special Operations community on countless direct action missions undertaken in Iraq, Afghanistan, and famously in the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.  The difference between a Flow experience and Thriving is the extent of the experience; Flow (and Fingerspitzengefühl) is an experience of complete engagement in an activity, Thriving is the daily experience of complete engagement in all aspects of our daily lives.  Flow is the experience of the practitioner who has achieved a high level of performance in his or her area of expertise; Thriving is the experience of a dedicated generalist.


I am guilty of referring to things as “obvious” with great regularity.  My wife has pointed out my affectation for saying concluding sentences by saying, “Obviously!” enough times now that I catch myself when I do, and occasionally even avoid saying it altogether.  What I have come to realize is that when I say that something is obvious, what I am really doing is saying, “This is how I think things work.”  If it really was obvious there would be no need to make the comment or observation, you would all already be thinking it.

Our ability to perceive, comprehend, and predict are the three key elements of our ability to maintain situational awareness.  With this is in mind we should strive to ensure that our perceptions are as accurate as possible.  Through my own observation, as well as research, I feel that one of the key factors in a distorted perception of reality is our Cultural Traditions.  Mark Divine, founder of SEALFit and owner of US CrossFit refers to this as our “Background of obviousness”; those beliefs, ideas, and purported “facts” that we have be nurtured to believe.  We each belong to a number of cultural groups from the macro-group of our national identity or our ethnic heritage to the micro-group of our immediate family and a host of cultural groupings in between.  Each of these groups leaves an imprint on us; those imprints are often unconscious, yet still guide our perceptions, thoughts, and actions.  The key reason to examine our Cultural Traditions is to recognize these beliefs for what they are, learned behaviors, and assess if they are factual or simply “what we have always been told.”

Human children are predisposed to believe what our parents and responsible adults believe through conditioning (when the big person yells if you don’t listen you’re hand gets slapped) and also likely through a naturally selected mechanism.  This accounts for why everything from “don’t eat the red berries,” to “those people aren’t like us,” are readily passed down from parents to offspring.  I think that many people have confronted the discovery that a long held family custom is based on inaccurate or distorted information.  For children, when this first happens it can be quite shocking.  What I find curious is that as adults we do not more readily turn a critical eye on the traditions we have been raised to think are… obvious.  It’s important to remember the words of Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

There is a reasonable amount of discussion of this curiosity in the circle of evolutionary psychology as well as those scientists who have taken up the broad and multi-disciplinary topic of Consciousness research.  Leonard Mlodinow, in his book Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, observes that, “Evolution designed the human brain not to accurately understand itself but to help us survive.”[1]  This process of “design” occurred through natural selection and is tied to our Genetic Heritage, as previously discussed.  What can be seen as an outgrowth of this genetic tendency to accept what we are taught by responsible adults forms the foundation of our Culture.

Religion, politics, and social conventions are all outgrowths of our Cultural Traditions.  Your religion is most often an identifier of geography and time.  If you had been born in Norway between the eight and eleventh centuries you would have believed that Odin was the all-father, hoped for a good rune casting, and worried about the coming of Ragnarök.  I’m willing to bet most of the folks who are reading this come from a whole different geographic/time stamp of religion and find their religion springs from the Jewish or Christian scriptures as interpreted through several thousand years of cultural traditions.  Few people choose their religion, it is handed to them by their parents and those beliefs, understandings, and expectations color their observations.  In the same way someone who is raised with a conservative political ideology will look at the world with a different filter than someone who looks through a liberal one.  It is not important for our filter to be the “right” one, nor for us to defend our filters; it is important to turn a critical eye to those aspects of culture we do believe, and consider the impact they have on our decisions.  This is not an easy task, as Mlodinow observes, “The stronger the threat to feeling good about yourself, it seems, the greater the tendency to view reality through a distorted lens.”[2]

Cleaning the Lens

The whole reason for examining these various filters is to, as Carl Jung said, “…make the darkness conscious.”  If we seek to maximize our capacity to use unfolding interactions with our environment, unfolding circumstances, and outside information (the three primary stimuli that feed into our observations) to make appropriate and effective decisions that will help us Thrive, we need to understand the effect our Cultural Traditions have.  To reference Mlodinow once again, “Accurate introspection makes use of our private knowledge of ourselves.”[3]  It is only by turning the light of introspection on our Cultural Traditions that we can fully come to understand their impact.




[1] Mlodinow, Leonard, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, Vintage Books (2012), p.194

[2] IBID p.197

[3] IBID p.166

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