The Recognition-Primed Decision (RPD) Process – A Detailed Analysis

The Recognition-Primed Decision (RPD) Process – A Detailed Analysis


There are certain occupations which require you to make decision in critical situations. For instance that of a fire fighter upon whose decision making skills depends the life of his or her teammates and bystanders. In 1985, a study was conducted by research psychologists Roberta Calderwood, Gary Klein and Anne Clinton-Cirocco on the decision making strategies of army veterans and fire fighters. Eventually, they came up with the Recognition-Primed Decision (RPD) Process. In this article, we will explore this decision-making tool.

About Recognition Primed Decision Process

According to the study conducted by Gary Klein, Roberta Calderwood and Anne Clinton-Cirocco on the decision-making strategies of army veterans and fire fighters, the secret lies in their way of assessing the situation and coming up with a decision drawing references from a previous experience similar to the current scenario. After generating a possible course of action all the constraints from the situation are imposed on it and then, the first course of action is chosen. A wide variety of groups use this decision model starting from ICU nurses, stock market traders fire ground commanders and  chess players. This kind of decision making proves to be helpful under situations where time is a luxury, information is partial and motive is unclear.

How does RPD work?

Decision making where the question of life or death situation is involved is always a very sensitive issue. According to many, no decision making model other than RPD will work when the job demands such pressure. Under such conditions, the brain follows a system called ‘pattern recognition’ which compares the ongoing course of action with past experiences and comes up with an appropriate solution. The fire fighters were not comparing options; they had an action script which they ran through a mental simulation. This mental simulation was based upon various mental models that they have developed through experience. While using this process, the decision maker chooses the course of action which is known to him or her from past encounters and has worked earlier under similar circumstances. The Recognition Primed Decision Process Works in three stages:

  1. The action model which is practically feasible and will provide the favorable outcome keeping in mind all the possible threats from the present situation is chosen.
  2. The situation is assessed for any further information and with the arrival of any new threat or upon detection of any loophole in the plan, the action script is altered. If the script fails under mental simulation based upon the new information, it is totally discarded and the process restarts.
  3. This process continues several times before a strategy is formulated which eliminates all possible threats. It must be clearly understood that this kind of decision making does not involve comparison with any alternatives. It is purely based upon identical confrontations of same stature.

While working under high pressure, you may not always think right. But it has been seen that human brain often goes through the above mentioned stages subconsciously.

How to Gain Expertise in RPD?

Expertise in RPD comes from experience. Years of being in the field enhances your pattern recognition skills. You create mental models of every prior encounter you had and during times of distress, this gives you plenty of options to choose from before you pick a course of action which may work.

In order to gain complete mastery over the recognition prime decision model, you need to work on your ability to make choice with alacrity. The faster it takes for you to choose the right action script from your brain bank, the more efficient your decision making skills will become. It has been seen that senior fire fighters zeroes down the experiences of their lifetime, and makes a decision instantaneously.

The Perfect Blend

For using the recognition primed decision making model efficiently, one needs to work on two things:

  1. Intuition - This is required for choosing the right course of action. This intuition or gut feeling is used to identify and comprehend situations and decide accordingly.
  2. Analytical skills - Analytical skills are required to check whether your intuition is suitable for handling the current situation.

Variations in RPD

There are three major variations in the RPD model.

  1. Variation 1 (When detailed information about the situation as well as the relevant courses of action is available) - Under such circumstances, a given situation will produce immediate courses of action depending upon the typicality of the scenario.
  2. Variation 2 (When details about the feasible courses of action are available, but no information is present about the exact parameters of the current situation) - To avoid complicacy during the operation, the decision makers at first, forms the situation carefully, chalk out the most relevant details and then, choose the most relevant course of action. Fast and efficient situation modeling comes with experience.
  3. Variation 3 (Where details about the situation are available but no possible action scripts are known) - This means that you have analyzed and gathered information about the situation, but it is new to you and you have no mental model to compare it with. In such case, you have to form probable course of action based on the typicality of the situation. Experienced decision makers can come up with a viable way quickly using the knowledge they have gathered over the years.


This technique also has its drawbacks. In order to make efficient use of this model, the decision maker has to be experienced and if the situation is misidentified, the entire model would fail. Other drawbacks include the following.

  • Often checking the success rate of a model is not possible.
  • In this rapid changing world, old model action charts are being replaced by latest models. Experience gathered over the ages is being discounted. System procedures unsuitable for proper situation analysis and mental simulation are being implemented.
  • Very few people know about this model.

How effective will RPD be for you?

In an army, 96% of the planning decisions made by the army officers are based on intuition. Naval commanders happen to use RPD 95% of the time too. The model is also used by commercial air crews and managers of offshore oil platforms. The success rate of the Recognition Primed Decision has made it to replace conventional army Military Decision Making Process (MPDP) in many units. The results have been found to be bolder and better adapted to situational demands than any of the other decision making models. So, if it worked for them, it will definitely work for you!

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