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Decision inertia in critical incidents

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal article

<mark>Journal publication date</mark>1/07/2019
<mark>Journal</mark>European Psychologist
Issue number3
Number of pages10
Pages (from-to)209-218
Publication statusPublished
Early online date30/05/18
Original languageEnglish


When presented with competing options, critical incident decision makers often struggle to commit to a choice (in particular when all options appear to yield negative consequences). Despite being motivated to take action in disasters, terrorism, major investigations, and complex political interventions, decision makers can become inert, looping between phases of situation assessment, option generation, and option evaluation. This “looping” is functionally redundant when it persists until they have lost the opportunity to take action. We define this as “decision inertia”: the result of a process of (redundant) deliberation over possible options and in the absence of any further useful information. In the context of critical incidents (political, security, military, law enforcement) we have discovered that rather than disengaging and avoiding difficult choices, decision makers are acutely aware of the negative consequences that might arise if they failed to decide (i.e., the incident would escalate). The sensitization to possible future outcomes leads to intense deliberation over possible choices and their consequences and, ultimately, can result in a failure to take any action in time (or at all). We (i) discuss decision inertia as a novel psychological process of redundant deliberation during crises; (ii) define the concept and discuss the emerging studies in support of our tentative hypotheses regarding how the cognitively active process of deliberation can result in complete behavioral inactivity; and (iii) suggest recommendations and interventions for combatting inertia