The Myth of Condition Yellow and Situational Awareness

Colonel Jeff Cooper founded the Gunsite Academy (American Pistol Institute) in 1976 to develop and teach the art of fighting with a pistol and almost everything that exists today in the world of firearms training and concealed carry goes back in some way or another to Col. Cooper.

One of the things that Col. Cooper came up with was a set of 4 “color codes” that designated what mental state people are in.  Cooper’s color codes pretty much laid the groundwork for the general public becoming aware of the concept of situational awareness.

The color codes are:

Condition White: You are asleep or unaware of the possibility of danger. If danger presents itself, the natural reaction is denial and/or bargaining.

Condition Yellow: You know that the possibility exists for danger, but aren’t pre-occupied with it. You have no specific concerns and haven’t identified any threats or serious potential threats. You are ready to deal with threats if they present themselves and won’t be surprised if they do. If danger presents itself, your reaction is action.

In condition yellow, you are relaxed, calm, and alert. Pulse is low, blood pressure is low, hands are warm, etc.

Because you are relaxed, calm, and alert, you can remain in this state for long periods of time without fatigue or irritation and can be fully engaged with people around you.

Condition Orange: When a potential threat attracts your attention, you switch into condition orange until you determine if it’s a real threat or a false positive. Usually it will be a false positive and you’ll want to switch back to Condition Yellow ASAP, but people get tripped up by not realizing that they’ve “gone orange” and forget to calm down and switch back to condition yellow.

Condition orange is where you decide on your mental trigger—“If he does x, I’ll do y”

Condition orange sucks energy like a Shop-Vac. If you know anyone who’s recently come back from battle or is hyper-vigilant in a situation where it’s not necessary, it’s likely that they’re in some shade of condition orange when they don’t need to be.

Condition orange is not sustainable.  That’s why lifeguards and Secret Service agents switch roles so often.

When you’re in condition orange, a significant portion of your mental bandwidth is focused on identifying potential threats. Fun, humor, conversations, beauty, and the present experience start to be minimized to focus on how to survive what might happen next.

Oftentimes, you’ll know that you’re in condition orange because your body starts preparing for battle and will start showing early signs of stress to one degree or another—shallower breathing, higher pulse & blood pressure, etc. in preparation for a fight/flight.

Condition Orange is a lifesaver when you need it, but can wear you down if you stay in this mode too long unnecessarily.

Condition Red: This is fight or flight time, based on what your mental trigger is/was. This is when you execute pre-conditioned and pre-determined responses…not when you start thinking through things.

So, what’s the myth of condition yellow?

The myth of condition yellow is really a misunderstanding that happens after people learn about the concept.

They instantly understand and appreciate the color codes and try to apply them…even if they don’t have a framework to follow to apply them successfully.

They may THINK they’re in condition yellow all of the time, but they’re not.

As an example, healthy people spend between 30-47% of their waking hours daydreaming about things that happened in the past, imaginary situations, or other things that take their attention away from the here and now.

I won’t hesitate to admit that I’ve been in situations where I was going through if-then scenarios in my mind at a stoplight and was so into my scenario that it took the car behind me honking for me to know the light had changed.  I’ve been driving 70mph on the interstate and passed MY exit because my mind was somewhere else.  Everyone has had these experiences and to think that you’re in condition yellow every waking hour with your head on a swivel and 360 degree awareness just isn’t accurate or beneficial.

The other side is that people who are new to situational awareness or who haven’t had solid formal training end up spending a lot of time amped up in condition orange THINKING that they’re in condition yellow rather than being relaxed and alert like you should be in condition yellow.

You see, condition yellow is when your mind is UNCONSCIOUSLY scanning your environment for threats…kind of like a backup warning beeper on a car. It’s working and scanning while your conscious mind is doing other things.

When it (either your mind in condition yellow and the backup beeper) sounds a warning, the conscious mind immediately jumps into action, shifts attention, goes into condition orange, and determines whether or not the warning requires further action or not.

In a car, when the backup warning turns off because you put your car into park or drive, you don’t keep staring backwards, looking for threats…you let the sensors do their job in the background while you do whatever you want to with your conscious mind.  This is the equivalent of switching back to condition yellow and it’s what you want to do in everyday life.

But with condition yellow and condition orange, 3 things typically happen:

First, people don’t know how to program their mind to minimize the number of false threat warnings.  They don’t have a vocabulary or a threat profile in their mind to use for filtering and inner dialog.

And they confuse vague sayings like, “always look for exits” and “be on the lookout for threats,” that create unease with true situational awareness that creates confident calmness.

As an example, if you bumped up against me in a coffee shop and realized that I was carrying a gun, would you see me as a threat or know how to filter me out as a potential resource?

Second, people spend way too much time in condition orange for no reason, which is taxing and conditions them to mistrust their instincts and eventually become blind to actual threats.

Some people need to be completely focused and in condition orange for extended periods of time…but, in reality, most people CAN’T stay in condition orange for more than 15-30 minutes at a time without a big drop in performance.

The key is to be able to quickly and fluidly switch back and forth between condition yellow and condition orange as situations present themselves.

And the way to do that is with accurate threat profiles.  When you give your mind a short, simple list of criteria to compare potential threats to, it helps you identify threats quicker and more accurately, it helps you avoid false alarms, and helps you live safer and calmer at the same time.

Before now, that was a skill that people either had or they didn’t. There just hasn’t been a very effective way to teach the concept of how to switch back and forth and how to enjoy maximum situational awareness with minimal conscious effort.

This has been complicated by the fact that most of the loudest proponents of situational awareness in the firearms and self-defense worlds aren’t fully aware of how they developed their own situational awareness skills in the first place.

And if you don’t know how you got good at something, it makes it very difficult to teach. 

I know…I used to be a big proponent of situational awareness, but had no clue how to help people get from where they were to where I was.

And that’s why I’m such a big supporter of the Avoid Deter Defend Situational Awareness and Threat Detection Course that retired US Navy SEAL Larry Yatch and his former intelligence professional wife, Anne, put together.

It’s the same skills that Larry used downrange when operating solo and on small teams to protect him from ambush and kidnapping, except it’s been modified to help civilians protect themselves and loved ones from muggings, assault, and sexual assault, regardless of their age or tactical ability.

It’s the only training available today in any form that seamlessly takes you from the pre-fight stage where you use situational awareness to identify and avoid threats, to the fight stage where you defend yourself with whatever training you have, to the post-fight stage where you interact with law enforcement and 911 and go home free and safe that night.  Every other training that I’ve seen misses one or more of these stages.

If you don’t have it yet, I want to strongly encourage you to check it out today by going >HERE<.

Thoughts, questions, or comments about condition yellow?  Fire away by commenting below.

Please follow and share:
Pin Share


  • Heidi

    Reply Reply November 7, 2018

    I used to like to go to parties when I was much younger. I always could tell when it was time to leave, just by the background sound of the gathering.The cops would arrive about ten minutes later. I’m not sure if that is what you mean by situational awareness, but it kept me out of trouble. It got so that when I left, so did my friends.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply November 7, 2018

      Awesome, Heidi! That’s a great example of one aspect of situational awareness called “atmospherics” and you evidently had it nailed for that environment and avoiding bad interactions with law enforcement.

      Avoid Deter Defend will give you that same sense for when the conditions are right for violence…so that you can avoid it, prepare for it, or preemptively strike someone because you “see” their attack much sooner than you would otherwise.

  • Owen McCullen

    Reply Reply September 1, 2017

    Many years ago, in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s several martial arts instructors taught their students about a “special mind state” that was necessary to achieve success in testing for advancement or combat.
    One described the condition like having your mind in a relaxed state similar to the surface of a calm lake in the moon light — a smooth surface that reflects everything around its periphery but which doesn’t ripple its surface at what goes on around its peripery. The other described the mind state like that of the surface of the moon — calm and featureless but shining on everything, remote and detached but aware of everything.
    The point was that you were not emotionally involved in your surroundings and what goes on, but you are aware of all about you. Not scared, nervous or on edge — just aware. That way when your opponent made a move you did not have to prepare and sort through your response because if you trained properly, you instinctively moved to counter your opponent’s move or you took advantage of your opponent’s temporary misstep.
    The focus was on not being emotionally involved in the situation but being calmly detached. That way, if you had trained properly, when the threat or opportunity presented itself, you “instinctively”reacted in accordance with your training. No need to think and delay your reaction, merely go on automatic and react before anyone else was aware of your movement. I have long thought that advice squared, theoretically, with the condition yellow/condition orange color situations or the situation awareness we should practice. Do you agree? I have applied, or tried to with varying degrees of success those thoughts to daily life for six decades.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply September 1, 2017

      Hey Owen, I’m not sure if you have a name for it, but I know that special state of mind as “Mushin” or “empty mind.” One way of explaining it is that you stop over-thinking things and you just react with conditioned responses that you’ve developed over time. The key is that the conditioned responses are developed over time. The only people who experience or benefit from this are people who do deliberate practice and training and have conditioned responses to default to.

      There are definitely times where mushin and condition yellow overlap, but I’ve used it much more frequently in condition orange or red. Instead of getting worked up when I see or experience a threat, I have mushin moments where I drop into Alpha brainwave state and calmly take care of the problem.

  • John McClarren

    Reply Reply October 28, 2016

    Thank you for clarifying these color conditions. I think I am pretty consistently in the yellow category. I am always aware of potential dangers around me, but by no means paranoid about the possibilities. We live in a very strange world now, with frequent radical and violent events happening in very unexpected places, not even necessarily heavily populated. Always being on the alert is a wise thing, but not becoming overly concerned to the point of continuous discomfort. Relax and enjoy life. If imminent danger presents itself, fine; take whatever appropriate action is necessary at the time, but don’t stress out over the mere possibilities of things happening.

  • Frank Garfield

    Reply Reply July 16, 2016

    I trained with Col Cooper at Gunsite in 1978 and again in 1979. We drilled with the color system right from the first day. Yellow means things like periodically checking the reflection in a store window you’re passing by just to better know what is around you. You are just being “AWARE,” (Yellow) you’re not “GETTING READY” (Orange) for anything. Situational awareness is only a myth when people don’t understand exactly what it is.
    Orange (like Torbett said) is actually perceiving a potential threat and “Getting Ready” to deal with it if you have to (if you feel an imminent threat of death or bodily harm). However, someone snatching a purse and running away is not justification for drawing and threatening or actually shooting a perp because they are then running away and do not pose a threat.
    Not long ago in Michigan a CPL holder presented a weapon when her purse was grabbed and was charged for threatening with a firearm when the purse snatcher was running away.
    Learning to use the Color Code Mindset is a must do, especially if one is carrying.

  • Mark

    Reply Reply April 29, 2016

    Being aware comes naturally to some, but not for all. Some don’t feel the need to. Sheep some of them. But we try to teach awareness. It is picked up when the need presents itself. So, some will always be on first base, while others are still at homeplate trying to get on. It helps when people can stave down perpetrators often times. Keep teaching, and we’ll keep reaching.

  • Robert Torbett

    Reply Reply February 14, 2016

    I learned Situational Awareness while in the Navy back in the ’60s. I’ve practiced it ever since. As I’ve aged, I’ve slowed down of course and find being aware of my situation is even more important for me and also in keeping my disabled wife safe. An example is a couple of months ago we were at a Wal Mart near us. I had just unloaded her scooter from the back of the truck when a man who had the appearance of someone rather seedy picked up her purse from the scooter seat. Before he could explain himself as just helping her sit down, my hand was on the grip of my 9mm. She didn’t know this until I told her later that he was almost staring down the barrel my pistol. Good self control and being able to make this move without anyone even realizing what I was doing kept the situation from turning ugly. This is why I believe everyone needs to ensure they are fully aware of their surroundings and conditions. I’m a firm believer in the “Color” system and feel all persons especially those with a CCL need to be trained in the process. I’ve been using the cards for dry fire practice, but wanted to refer to your information regarding them.
    Thanks for system.
    Robert Torbett

Leave A Response

* Denotes Required Field