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The Recognition-Primed Decision (RPD) model was described by Gary Klein in order to explain how people can make relatively fast decisions without having to compare options. Previously, decision researchers had argued that unless people used some sort of decision analysis or multi-attribute utility analysis, their decisions would be inadequate and prone to biases. Klein and his colleagues studied the way experienced fireground commanders made difficult decisions under time pressure and uncertainty. The researchers speculated that the commanders only compared two options instead of a full range of options. However, the firefighters insisted that they rarely compared any options at all. This created two mysteries – how could the firefighters be so confident of the first option that popped into their heads, and how could they evaluate an option without comparing it to another option?

By reviewing incident accounts collected through cognitive task analysis, for 156 decision points collected from 26 highly experienced commanders averaging 23 years as firefighters, the researchers determined that the commanders had accumulated a large repertoire of patterns and could use these patterns to rapidly categorize situations. Once the situation was understood, the commanders knew, through experience, how to respond. That resolved the first mystery.

The incident accounts also showed that the commanders evaluated an option by conducting a mental simulation to see if it would work. If the mental simulation looked good, the commanders would take action. If the mental simulation showed flaws in the course of action, the commanders would revise and improve the option. And if they couldn’t find a way to eliminate the flaws, the commanders would look at the next option in the action queue, continuing until they found one that looked like it would work. That resolved the second mystery. The commanders evaluated options by imagining them in the context of the current situation.

The RPD model is a blend of intuition and analysis. The intuition is the pattern-matching process that quickly suggests feasible courses of action. The analysis is the mental simulation, a conscious and deliberate review of the courses of action. In this way, the RPD model is compatible with the System 1/System 2 framework suggested by Daniel Kahneman and others.


  • Klein, G. (1998) Sources of Power: How people make decisions, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1998.

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