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Inertia Bias

Inertia Bias

"The tendency to look for, and choose, default courses of actions is one of the most robust biases in decision making" 1 Inertia bias is also known as the status quo bias.

How does this impact getting prepared? People have two modes of thinking and decision making: System 1 which is automatic, fast and requires little effort and System 2 which is slower, more deliberative and requires effort. Decisions to get prepared are not done by default. Unfortunately the more complicated system 2, which is used to make these decisions, gets mired in options, costs, and complexity. Inertia takes over and the default of doing nothing is the result.

Inertia bias also impacts decision making by public officials. Meyer and Kunreither use Hurricane Katrina as an example of this bias leading to a massive government failure. Exactly one year before Katrina devastated New Orleans and killed in excess of 2,500 people, Hurricane Ivan was targeting the city. As forecasters were predicting a direct hit by Ivan, city officials realized they had no way to evacuate 100,000 people or provide the necessary services. Roads would be flooded, mass transit would stall, and shelters were inadequate - even the Super dome was deemed inadequate. Hurricane Ivan made a turn and left New Orleans breathing a huge sigh of relief.

One would hope officials would heed the warning and respond appropriately. New Orleans had an entire year to solve some of these issues, or at least begin to solve them - they failed. The solutions were complex, there were competing interests, there was uncertainty of the outcome, and there was competition for financial resources. The inertia to do nothing overwhelmed all logic and knowledge - little was done.

Defaults courses of action, which is doing nothing, can ultimately prove tragic.

1 - The Ostrich Paradox, Robert Meyer and Howard Kunreuther