Errors or Inertia? The Surprising Psychology of What Holds People Back in Life

June 6, 2022
Errors or Inertia? The Surprising Psychology of What Holds People Back in Life

In our professional work we often look at high-stakes decisions that have life and death implications for the decision-maker and those around them. These decisions involve high-stakes, high uncertainty, risk, fear, and a lack of knowledge about “what comes next.”

While it may not seem like it on the surface, in our own lives we often face many similar difficult decisions. In our work lives, social lives, and even love lives we often must embrace risk, overcome fear and face up to not knowing “what comes next”.

Not only are the types of decisions the same, but often the #1 reason that decision-making in the field and decision-making in our everyday lives goes wrong is often the same; people don’t make the “wrong” choice, they fail to make any choice.

This may not sound like a surprise to you – we often see indecision all around us, and use terms like “procrastination”, or “FOMO” (fear of missing out) – but despite studying decision-making for centuries, psychology has almost entirely ignored the psychology of indecision.  Because of this, while many books will tell you how to make ‘the right’ or ‘better’ decisions, better, quicker, or easier – we often fail to help people overcome the processes that prevent them from making any decision at all.

Our research has identified that there three forms of indecision (we call these “inertia traps”), and we can help you identify which one you have fallen into recently:

  1. Take a moment now to think about a challenging decision you have faced in the past. It usually involves change: changing a job, changing your location, changing a relationship, changing your focus on life.
  2. Now, when you think about this decision – which of the following traps did you fall into:

    1. Decision avoidance: You refused to think about the decision, and instead focused your energies on other problems/decisions.
    2. Decision inertia: You tried to make the decision about what to do, but could not work out what the best choice was.
    3. Implementation failure: You knew what the right decision was, and what you wanted, but you failed to take the steps required to bring this action to life.

Looking at your own decision-making, can you see these patterns play out? Or maybe in a close friend. Have you watched them avoid making a change that needs to be made, or heard them try and struggle to decide what to do, but never actually decide what they want? Or perhaps they have told you what they want, but they never actually make it happen.

The same way we often find these three forms of inertia in decision-making in high-stakes, life or death situations in our research - we see them just as much when we look at decision-making of those around us (and even ourselves!)

At the same time, look at the decisions of those around you who you admire – perhaps they took a chance on love and lived happily ever after; perhaps they dropped out of high school and started a business that is now a huge success. Look at the decisions you have made that you are most proud of, or perhaps least proud of.

In many cases, the people we admire, and specifically the decisions that made them, are those in which it would have been easier to become inert. But instead of avoiding, deliberating or failing to implement, they acted. This is why we admire them, and why the costs of inaction are often so high; it stands in the way of us often achieving our potential.

So next time you face a big decision in life, and you are struggling with what to do, do the same thing we teach our elite decision-makers: take a breath, and make sure you are not falling into one of these classic inertia traps. Because while it is important to be careful to not make the wrong decision, it is often much worse to allow the fear of the wrong decision to stop you from making any decision at all.  


- Neil Shortland and Laurence Alison, authors of Decision Time

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