The Cooper color code system of awareness gives us a baseline to identify the psychological condition of a person dealing with a life threatening situation. Developed by Lt. Col Jeff Cooper, Marine Corps retired, the system includes four stages or colors that denote a person’s mental state during a dangerous event. The sequence of these colors or levels of awareness are White, Yellow, Orange, and Red. Each one represents a process and can enable a positive or negative outcome depending on its application to the circumstances.

White is a state that no one wants to find themselves in when a potentially lethal situation occurs. A person who’s brain is in the White is completely unaware of their surroundings and has zero concern for personal safety. Should a person in the White be engaged by a threat, they will likely crumple or become victimized because by that standard it will be far too late to prepare or react. We as individuals should always strive to stay out of this mentality, it is the definition of complacency and irresponsibility in terms of threatening conditions.

Yellow is by far the most productive of mentalities, an individual who values self-reliance and personal safety will constantly being sitting here psychologically. In the Yellow stage, the individual is aware and alert while consistently evaluating their surroundings and assessing the situation they are in. This does not mean they are maintaining a constant state of paranoia but they have good head on their shoulders and are maintaining a state of alert readiness. They are proactively searching for the danger and if done correctly can be made a routine mental exercise.

Orange or the mental state of it means a threat has been identified and a solution is being formed to fit the life threatening situation. Orange while still a positive within the context of a present threat has a serious draw back that the Yellow mentality does not. When in the Orange, or having identified the threat, the individual goes into a state of tunnel vision where they focus on the threat in order to reach a decision about what needs to happen in regards to the situation at hand. This tunnel vision completely obscures any possible secondary or tertiary threats from the individual’s mind. In that lies its shortcoming; it would also be insanely exhausting to attempt an Orange state of awareness at all times and would closely mirror the symptoms of post traumatic stress.

Red is go mode and it is the stage where the plan has been formed, the decision has been made, and the individual is executing it. This state is a level of hyper primal brain activity as the individual is well within the flight or fight response. It is in this realm that the chemical cocktail of adrenaline is in full swing and individuals carry out incredible feats despite extraordinary circumstances. Red is where human beings carry out lethal action.

Another stage was added later, Black, which has been defined by a complete shut down of the brain due to essentially a system overload via an excessively elevated heart rate or mental stimulus. Basically a person in the Black cannot function in any fashion and would be physically represented by the fetal position.

I hope that you can take this system and learn a bit more about the human condition, specifically the human response to a lethal situation in relation to levels of psychological awareness. If you’d like to learn more about psychology and violence, I highly recommend you pick up Dave Grossman’s works, On Killing and On Combat. If you would like to learn more about situational awareness and being prepared for conflict, I suggest you look into Left of Bang by Patrick Horne and Jason Riley.

Photo courtesy of the author


*Originally published on SOFREP