You may have gotten the impression that Gary Klein’s Recognition-Primed Decision Model (PDF) was based on intuition. You would be in good company. Lots of people who write about RPD infer that it’s all about intuition, about gut feelings, about making fast decisions.
That’s not really true.
It may have been the many firefighter stories. The chief at the kitchen fire scene gets a feeling that something is not right in the building. He pulls out his team and the floor collapses. The investigators discover that the fire was not actually in the kitchen: it was in the basement.
The chief must have ESP!
No, he doesn’t.
He does have perception, and it is extra. But just like Sherlock Holmes he used his normal senses to perceive what we do not.
He saw indicators that were not matching the described situation. The chief was actively monitoring certain data streams, certain key indicators. He doesn’t think about what he’s doing because his understanding has become tacit knowledge; his head knowledge had gone into his fingertips, become part of his unconscious reactions. He didn’t know that he was evaluating several data streams because they had been routine for him.
This isn’t that crazy. Take, for example, an activity that most of us are experts at: walking. We don’t think about walking most of time. We have become experts at navigating most terrains around us without thinking. We can text while we walk down our stairs, talk to our friends while walking down the street, watch our kids as we move down the mall.
It’s not until we get to a terrain that is unusual or present unusual threats that we have to actively think about it. Once we have acclimated to navigating those threats we often go back to unconscious walking.
I move to Brussels from Chicago several years ago. I thought that I was used to walking in a big city. But Brussels presented several new challenges. They had cobblestones that got wicked slick in the rain. Dog excrement was everywhere. (Mojo Nixon even wrote a song about the experience in Amsterdam.) Construction projects often just extended into the streets leaving no place to walk as a pedestrian.
You would not believe the amount of feces that I cleaned off my shoes my first couple of months.
But by Christmas, four months in, I had gotten to where I could navigate the steaming piles of poop without consciously thinking about it. I had gotten skilled at taking in the data and adjusting my steps appropriately. Although the streets did not get cleaner, my shoes did.
The same thing happened when I moved from inside San Antonio to Chicago’s south side, years earlier. I had to learn how to navigate Chicago’s downtown. Most of this is about watching for threats while not making eye contact. (Chicago had incredibly aggressive panhandlers.) Once I learned it, I didn’t think about it.
Same thing with driving inside Chicago. Once I had done it enough, it became a series of normal annoyances.
You don’t gain ESP. Your brain has figured out how to watch several data streams without having to bother your conscious mind.
Image: “Black man working large electric phosphate smelting furnace make elemental phosphorus (TVA chemical plant Muscle Shoals, AL)”. 1942 by Alfred T. Palmer (Library of Congress). Public domain.