Determining how individuals adjust their behaviour to maximize reproductive opportunities is fundamental to understanding the adaptive significance of behavioural variations. Such ‘decision makin’ requires recognition mechanisms, whereby an individual evaluates cues that yield information about the potential reproductive outcomes of alternative behaviours. Here, we develop a quantitative model for understanding how individuals evaluate cues. Only when a proximate (immediate) cue predicts reproductive value more reliably than an evolved predisposition, will the cue influence an individua's decision. The model resolves some long–standing controversies in evolutionary biology involving recognition mechanisms and interpretations of behavioural decisions that were observed after manipulations of cues of parentage, kinship and mate quality.