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Naturalistic decision-making

You will now explore a relatively new approach to decision-making, naturalistic decision-making (NDM).

This process is based upon studies involving high-risk environments such as flight decks, military command posts and fire commands.

NDM has two stages:

Stage 1: an assessment of the situation including an often instinctive evaluation of the time/risk matrix.

Stage 2: deciding which decision-making method to choose depending upon that assessment appraisal before selecting and implementing a course of action.

In essence, if the time is ample and the risk is low, the commander is more likely to be creative or analytical; if the time is limited and the risk high, the commander is more likely to select a rule-based response or an intuitive course.

We shall see later how it is possible to attain good situation awareness, but for now let us focus on the second stage, the intuitive element of the decision-making process.

Recognition-primed decision-making (RPD), the main protocol derived from the NDM framework, relies on the commander remembering the responses to previous situations of the same type. Situational cues can be matched with memories of previous events stored as patterns or prototypes.

The process involves:

‘rapid retrieval from memory of a course of action associated with a recognised scenario’ (Flin, O’Connor and Crichton 2008).

The success of RPD rests entirely on the quality of the situation appraisal, the existence of the appropriate knowledge or experience and the ease of recall of memory. Klein explains that RPD:

‘fuses two processes: the way decision makers size up the situation to recognise which course of action makes sense, and the way they evaluate that course by imagining it’ (Flin, O’Connor and Crichton 2008).

There are, of course, positive and negative aspects to RPD (Flin, O’Connor and Crichton 2008):

Positive Negative
Very fast Requires user experience
Requires little conscious thought May be difficult to justify under scrutiny
Can provide a satisfactory, workable option May encourage confirmation bias
Good for routine situations  
Reasonably resistant to stress  

As we have seen, intuitive thought processes are natural and effective mechanisms to aid decision-making. The reality is that experienced commanders use a variety of technical and non-technical methodologies depending on their training and experience and the situation in hand. The important point is that understanding the way we think allows us to prepare individuals to take these decisions and to reduce the number of times that the wrong call is made.


Flin, R. H., O’Connor, P., and Crichton, M. (2008) Safety at the Sharp End: A Guide to Non-Technical Skills. Aldershot: Ashgate

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This article is from the free online course:

Emergency Management: Risk, Incidents and Leadership

Coventry University