Decision Inertia

Does decision inertia contribute to food choices? At Cooking2Thrive, we’ve long observed that adherence to specific dietary restrictions is not necessarily about the availability of compliant food or even delicious choices. While those “reasons” may dominate the rhetoric, they often don’t match actual situational decision-making.

Fear of change is terminology commonly used to explain a lack of dietary compliance. But we all encounter change every day and are able to adapt with minimal resistance which makes me wonder if that terminology accurately and adequately addresses resistance to healthy decisions. Decision inertia feels more accurate.

And while it goes without saying that behavior patterns will be individual, myriad, and layered, a willingness to sort through our particular situation and motivation is the way each of us can find a healthier path forward. For some of us, decision inertia is an important layer to consider.

What is it?

A study published in 2016, described decision inertia as “the tendency to repeat a previous choice, regardless of its outcome, in a subsequent decision.”

The significant phrase seems to be regardless of its outcome.

Why would we repeat a choice even if it has led to a poor outcome previously?

The same study cites a study (1) by Erev and Haruvy that concludes: “…there exists a strong tendency to simply repeat the most recent decision, which is even stronger than the tendency to react optimally to the most recent outcome.” 

The 2016 study seems to indicate that “this behavioral tendency is positively associated with an individual’s preference for consistency, and that the effect of decision inertia is stronger in voluntary choices than in required choices.”

How does this relate to food choices?

In general, it seems that when we’re just rocking along in life, we’ll tend to make the same decision over and over at different times and in different settings unless we believe we HAVE to make a different choice. That certainly seems true with food choices. We tend to repeatedly cook and eat our favorites. And they creep into our shopping carts even if they’re not on the list.

On the other hand, if you get food poisoning from eating at a certain restaurant, you’ll probably be less willing to eat at that restaurant because you believe you MUST make a different choice in order to avoid severe discomfort. The same is most likely true if you’ve had a severe allergic reaction to a food. Avoiding that food may feel voluntary until you suddenly can’t breathe. At that point, your understanding of “mandatory” avoidance of that food can shift swiftly and radically.

What about when a doctor recommends a certain diet?

Even if a doctor explains the risks, a recommendation can sound voluntary. And with voluntary decisions, we’re more likely to make the same choices we’ve always made. Even when we learn those decisions aren’t healthy, we often default to the comfort of consistency.

Can this be changed?

Of course it can. We are all ultimately in control of our decisions and we are all capable of change.

Awareness is the beginning.

Making mindful decisions and recording the outcome over a period of time can help you see patterns you may not have noticed. If you approach this with a sense of curiosity, you may learn you have some amusing tendencies. Once you’ve identified decision-making patterns, you can more easily determine what stands in the way of choosing a more healthy path.

Create a disruption.

If you can’t find a way to make yourself believe a healthy decision is mandatory, you can at least change the process so that there’s a greater chance you’ll notice when you’re about to repeat an unhealthy decision.

For example:

  • Store unhealthy snacks in a location that’s locked or requires a ladder.
  • Put items containing gluten on the “never” list on your grocery delivery service if a gluten-free diet has been recommended.
  • Eat a healthy option before you eat one that’s not recommended. The slight delay as well as the satisfaction of having eaten something may be enough to dissuade you from reverting to your former choice.

Stick with it.

Once you’ve observed, recorded, and determined ways to motivate yourself or disrupt your habits, stick with it. Eventually, the new decision will become the more consistent default.

Now’s the time.

The new year is a great time to explore decision inertia!

(1) Erev I., Haruvy E. (in press). Learning the economics of small decisions, in The Handbook of Experimental Economics, Volume 2, eds Kagel J. H., Roth A. E. (Princeton: Princeton University Press; )

Author: Cheri Thriver

Hello, Cheri Thriver here blogging about cooking, thriving, and the intersection of the two. I’ve been living a gluten-free lifestyle for over 15 years. I understand that it’s rarely a lack of knowledge or the availability of appropriate food that keeps us from making healthy choices. More often than not, it’s an emotional connection, previous trauma, or fear of social reprisal that keeps us stuck. My wish is that you’ll find something here that informs, entertains, or inspires you to change anything that needs to be changed for you to live fully and thrive.

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