The Recognition-Primed Decision (RPD) Process

Making Good Decisions Under Pressure

Learn how to make accurate decisions in high-pressure situations.

© iStockphoto/Bibigon

Firefighters often have to make life-or-death decisions with a moment's notice. One wrong choice could endanger the lives of others on their team, or of bystanders on the scene.

So how do people who work in high-pressure situations make these crucial decisions so quickly? The answer lies in how they assess the situation, and then compare what's in front of them with situations that they've encountered in the past.

The Recognition-Primed Decision (RPD) Process explores this. In this article, we'll examine the RPD Process, and look at how you can use it to make better decisions in high-pressure situations.

About the RPD Process

The RPD Process was first identified by research psychologists Gary Klein, Roberta Calderwood, and Anne Clinton-Cirocco in the late 1980s. Klein then published the process in his 1999 book "Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions." Klein is best-known for pioneering the field of naturalistic decision making – the study of how people make decisions in demanding and high-pressure situations.

Klein, Calderwood, and Clinton-Cirocco identified the process after studying professionals such as firefighters, emergency medical technicians/paramedics, and nuclear technicians, who routinely make quick, life-or-death decisions. They found that other decision-making models didn't adequately explain how people make good decisions under pressure.

The process highlights the three simple steps that we go through, often subconsciously, when we need to make a quick decision in a high-pressure situation. This process is based on "pattern recognition," and on how we use past experiences of similar situations to influence our decisions.

The three steps are as follows:

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