Recognition Primed
Decision Making Model

What is it?

In 1985 Gary Klein and others began to develop the recognition primed decision making model. They were studying decision making in the army and were examining how fire fighting chiefs make decisions.

They realized that these expert decision-makers were not comparing lists of options. They were not even comparing two options. So they ended up revising the whole research project and came up with a model of how people actually make decisions.

This description they called the recognition primed decision making model.


How it works

In a given situation, the decision maker will pick up cues and indicators that let them recognise patterns. Based on these patterns and the decision they have to make, the person chooses a single course of action, an ' action script', that they consider will achieve the outcome.

Klein and Co. wondered how people could assess this single option if they were not comparing it to something else. What they found was that the decision maker would run the action script through a mental simulation.

The mental simulation was based on mental models that the decision maker had developed through experience. In other words, the decision maker has an idea how things work based on the knowledge that has been gained from experience. S/he compares the option against what is known to work.

Moving forward

If the decision maker considers the action script will achieve the outcome, they go ahead.

If they consider that it might not work because of a potential problem, they may try and alter the action script in some way. If mentally they don't think it will work, they discard it completely, and choose a second action script.

This is then mentally rehearsed and so on until they find an action script that they think will work. This is then utilized. Note that in this recognition primed decision making model there is no comparison of alternatives.

Expertise and patterns

As people become more expert in their chosen field, as they have more and more experience, their ability to recognise patterns is enhanced. This gives them more options to choose from. Which means that, more often than not, the first option they choose will work.

Their rapid and effective movement through the recognition primed decision making model is what makes them experts.

Intuitive AND rational

What Klein and Co. are suggesting in their recognition primed decision making model is the use of intuition as well as rational decision making models, but with our intuition in the driving seat!

Intuition is used to recognise situations and help to decide how to respond, and analysis is used to verify that our intuitions are appropriate to the situation.

Will it work for you?

You might think that the recognition primed decision making model will work for some decisions, but not for others. There are two things here. First of all, initially Klein suggested that 90 per cent of important decisions were probably made this way, with more than 90% of routine decisions.

Subsequent research has suggested that his initial ideas were actually biased in favour of rational decision making. So he's probably actually underestimating how often people use a recognition primed decision making process!

Secondly, if you're concerned about making major decisions in this way, Klein also found that army officers used intuition in 96% of their planning decisions. Naval commanders used this model 95% of the time, too. Commercial air crews and managers of offshore oil platforms use intuition in 90% of their decisions!

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The process of the recognition primed decision making model is being used to replace the conventional army military decision making process (MDMP) in many units. Why? Because it works! Plans using the recognition primed decision making process are found to be bolder and better adapted to situational demands than the other plans.

The army military decision making process is supposed to enable an officer to develop tactically sound battle plans that result in success. It has also been found to have the opposite result in many cases! The recognition primed decision making model is also being advocated now in the global war on terrorism.

The pros

  • It works!
  • It's natural
  • And free of gluten, dairy and nuts. (couldn't resist!)

The cons

Not enough people know about it. Which means the following things occur and recognition primed decision making is not practiced:

  • People ignore feedback - or don't seek it out. Was my hunch right? How do I know? What would my boss or another expert do here?
  • Rapid turnover of staff is allowed - Staff never get much experience in one area so decision making effectiveness is not what it could be.
  • In our rapidly changing world, the latest models are quickly embraced to replace ones that actually work. The experience of the experts in the older working models is discounted. Paper credentials are becoming more important than experience. Procedures are instituted that don't properly capture the nuances of a situation.

These things prevent the pattern recognition necessary for recognition primed decision making and actually hamper effective decision making. There will be a price to pay!


Klein, in his book 'Intuition At Work' lays out this model and also gives general exercises and decision games for improving intuition.


Make it personal

You can also learn your own internal signals of intuition and how to begin to use this model for yourself...

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