Amanda Ripley

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Cooper’s Color Code

21st Nov 2008 posted in Disaster Behavior

I gave a speech at the State Department yesterday, and as always happens at these things, I came away much the wiser. In fact, I am starting to think that the main reason to do these speeches is the selfish one: because at the end, I just stand there sipping from a bottle of water and people walk up to tell me wondrous, strange, fascinating stories.

Anyway, after this speech for the Overseas Security Advisory Council, a man came up to me and told me about Jeff Cooper’s Colors. I neglected to ask if I could use his name here, so I thank him anonymously. But I’d like to share what he told me.

Lt. Col. Cooper was a writer, a historian and a master gunslinger. His Color Code was essentially a theory about how your mental state of readiness affects your ability to respond to a threat. I wish I’d known about his Color Code before I finished The Unthinkable, because we were both saying the same thing in different ways.

One of the things I found again and again, in all kinds of disasters from plane crashes to car wrecks, is that people are extremely likely to freeze up and do nothing. Cooper’s theory is that your mental state just before the crisis determines whether you will shut down or respond more appropriately.

The four colors are White, Yellow, Orange and Red. If something goes horribly wrong when you are in the White state, you will fail, Cooper wrote. White is a state of relaxation and complacency. Yellow is the ideal—a state of relaxed awareness, when you are not conscious of any particular threat but you are conscious of the horizon, of what is happening around you and of the possibility that anything could happen at any time. Orange is when you are acutely aware that something is wrong, and Red is when you are in the thick of it.

I love this idea. I would, with apologies to Cooper, who died two years ago, like to extend this idea beyond gunfighting to all kinds of trauma and conflict. We should all aspire to be in the Yellow Zone: a place of equanimity and readiness, where we are aware but not anxious; engaged but not frightened; informed of the range of possible threats and our own ability to prevent, respond and recover from loss and change, but not consumed by hypotheticals. Imagine that.