The Basic Idea
If you took a physics class in high school, you may remember learning about inertia, an object’s tendency to resist change in motion.1 If the object is resting, it tends to stay at rest. If the object is moving, it will stay at its pace unless interrupted by an external force. Only with external resistance will the state of the object change.
Humans also experience inertia.2 We prefer to keep behaving as we already are; we stick with the default option unless we are specifically motivated to change it. Inertia also applies to our beliefs; we tend to resist changes in our ways of thinking. After all, relying on predetermined mental models appears an efficient method for managing behaviors and decisions.3 However, there is danger in overreliance on these defaults.
Before exploring inertia, there is an important distinction to be made between it and belief perseverance. Belief perseverance, also known as conceptual conservatism, is the tendency to maintain a belief despite being confronted with explicitly contradictory information.4 5 Belief perseverance relies on justifying invalidated information, and is thus the perseverance of the belief itself, while inertia is the perseverance of how one interprets information.2
In the 1960s, social psychologist William J. McGuire noticed a resurgence in suggestions that people tend to maintain logical consistency between their cognitions and behaviors.2 As a result, the idea of cognitive inertia was influenced by two existing psychological theories:
- Balance theory, a theory of attitude changes by Fritz Heider.6 This theory was based on the idea that there must be a balance between interpersonal relationships, such that all parties are harmonious in their thoughts, emotions, and social relationships. People are motivated to stay away from imbalance structures, so newly formed attitudes will typically strive to reduce tension.
- Cognitive dissonance, a theory proposed by Leon Festinger.7 This theory proposed that humans strive for internal psychological consistency. Cognitive dissonance results in feeling uncomfortable, motivating people to reduce said dissonance. This reduction can be done by rejecting, avoiding, or changing perceptions of contradictory information.
McGuire assumed that people can hold a certain amount of cognitive inertia, such that we initially resist changing how we process information when presented with new and conflicting information.2 To develop his work on cognitive inconsistencies and inertia, McGuidre conducted a study with 120 high school and college students.
Participants were presented with a variety of topics and asked how probable they thought each of these topics were.2 One week later, the participants were called back to read information related to the topics they had previously predicted. The participants were immediately asked again how probable they thought each of these topics were, and were further asked one week after they had been presented with the new information.
McGuire predicted that participants would be motivated to shift their probability ratings to be more consistent with the facts that they were presented, which were inconsistent with their initial probability ratings of the topics.2 However, McGuire was surprised to find that probability ratings did not immediately change to be consistent with the information presented. Rather, the shift toward consistency between original ratings and the factual information became stronger as time passed, which McGuire called a “continued seepage of change.”
Considering the temporal effects, McGuire termed this phenomenon “cognitive inertia”: the lack of immediate change was the result of participants’ existing thought processes and mental models persisting.2 This persistence interfered with participants’ abilities to properly consider the new information and alter their initial responses.
William J. McGuire
American social psychologist who studied philosophy and psychology after serving in World War II.8 Considered to be the “father of social cognition,” McGuire is most known for his work on persuasion and social influence, although he also contributed to the beginnings of cognitive inertia. McGuire co-founded the Society for Experimental Social Psychology and was president of the Personality and Social Psychology division of the American Psychological Association.
Since the study of inertia in the 1960s, it has been applied to fields including business management,9 10 11 12 13 criminal activity,14 health,17 and decision making and problem solving,15 1618 to name a few. It has been popularized in books like Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at our Peril, written in 2011 by business management expert, Margaret Heffernan.19 Named one of the most important business books of the decade by the Financial Times, Heffernan explores psychological research related to ignorance and inertia.20
Inertia is commonly referenced in the world of business management.9 10 Research highlights how important it is for managers to pay attention to inertia in order to avoid missed opportunities or endangering their company’s competitive advantage.11 For example, Greyhound was stuck in viewing itself as a bus company, preventing it from capitalizing on its chance to be a dominant player in the world of parcel transport. As for company endangerment, General Mills continued to operate mills long after they no longer held strategic importance. Due to the prevalence in business strategy, research has shifted to helping businesses overcome inertia, such as having managers consult with employees who can provide alternative perspectives.12 13
Interesting work has been done on psychological inertia as it pertains to crime continuity, with past criminality often being the best predictor of future criminality.14 Walters’ theory of inertia holds that crime continuity is due to six cognitive variables, all of which are slow to change and thus vulnerable to inertia:
Criminal thinking, including antisocial attitudes and irrational thought patterns;
Believing that engaging in criminal activity will have specific positive outcomes;
Attribution biases, such as the tendency to view the world as hostile and other people as malicious;
Low self-efficacy, resulting in low confidence that one will be able to avoid criminal activity in the future;
Focusing on short term goals opposed to long term goals; and,
Certain values, including immediate gratification and the pursuit of self-indulgent pleasure.
Inertia has also been found to play a role in decision making, especially when it comes to risky decisions.15 Research has shown that humans have a significant tendency to repeat previous choices with monetary feedback, due to our need to be consistent. Additionally, the effects of inertia on decision making are stronger in voluntary choices than mandatory choices. Knowledge inertia has emerged as a distinct type of inertia, referring to people’s tendencies to problem solve with old, redundant knowledge without paying attention to new experiences.16 The idea of knowledge inertia relates back to business management, as problem strategies that acknowledge new information are important for maintaining a competitive edge.13
Health is another vital field in which inertia is a topic of discussion. Emotional inertia, the tendency for one’s affective states to be resistant to change, is one of two types of psychological inflexibility that characterizes depression.17 Emotional inertia is related to rumination – the other type of inflexibility that characterizes depression – which refers to repetitively focusing on the causes and consequences of depressive symptoms. Aside from its role in health diagnoses, inertia can also be used to explain reactions to health concerns.18
The Spanish flu, for example, was a deadly pandemic.18 Yet, there was a universal lack of preparation or panic in response to the pandemic, despite extensive coverage of the flu’s progress. Researchers believe this was due to inertia: people had a widespread understanding of the flu as a seasonal infection that typically did not kill or severely harm people. This premeditated view of the flu was powerful enough to override any messages of the dangers of the Spanish flu, blinding people to its threat and thus resulting in lack of preparation for its spread.
Some researchers have presented adjustments and alternative theories to cognitive inertia, which addresses how people maintain their ways of interpreting information and thinking about an issue.21 These researchers hold that the cognitive emphasis should be replaced with a more holistic approach, accounting for the existing attitudes, emotions, and motivations that strengthen existing mental models.
In response, the theory of motivated reasoning has been presented as an alternative model to consider the phenomena associated with inertia.21 This theory holds that people are cognitively and emotionally biased to justify an existing thought or behavior. Motivated reasoning focuses on people’s drives to view themselves in a positive light: it suggests that persistence in how people interpret incoming information is based on motivations to be correct, rather than the actual cognitive perspective itself.22
Similar to the arguments for a more holistic approach to inertia, socio-cognitive inflexibility views inertia as more than just an inability to alter one’s way of interpreting information.23 Compared to cognitive inertia, socio-cognitive inertia emphasizes the inability to adapt to environmental changes, including institutional changes. The emphasis on social influences is paramount in this discussion: when considering the persistence of the nuclear family, for example, factors such as media portrayals and gender wage differences must be considered.24
Customer satisfaction and loyalty
Ensuring the commitment of existing customers is crucial for success in business.25 In order to do so, companies will ask their customers to complete online satisfaction surveys, supported by the assumption that consumers are motivated to evaluate the products or services during the consumption phase. After all, customer satisfaction is linked to customer loyalty.
However, Anna Mattila was curious as to whether consumers consciously process these mundane consumption experiences, which would have implications for the utility of their satisfaction ratings.25 According to the existing literature on social cognition, people do not always evaluate stimuli. Whether someone formulates a judgment online as they acquire information, or whether they pull judgments from their memory as needed, these judgments are influenced by their information processing goals.
The distinction between online and memory based judgments matters. Most satisfaction surveys are delivered remotely, yet consumers’ everyday judgments tend to be memory based.25 Mattila found that unless satisfaction surveys were administered immediately after their purchase, consumer responses were often based on their existing opinions of a company, rather than the actual quality of their recent experience. Unless the product or service was significantly negative or positive, existing inertia was not suppressed.
Mattila’s findings suggest that satisfaction surveys can lack the necessary information for businesses to assess their services and products, especially when they hope to use such data to improve their competitive edge.25 If consumers’ experiences cannot suppress their inertia, then the utility of satisfaction responses falls. Thus, businesses who hope to rely on satisfaction data must collect this information at the point of service delivery. Businesses could also consider repeatedly measuring customer satisfaction over time, to account for the effects of inertia.
As digital technologies continue to change the way traditional companies interact in established markets, many digital transformation projects have failed because of companies’ inability to adapt.26 This inertia, in the form of socio-cognitive inertia, is an important factor inhibiting organizational transformation. In fact, organizational transformations have a success rate of 30%. As a result, researchers have explored ways that organizations can overcome their socio-cognitive inertia.
Decentralized organizations – which rely on teamwork at multiple levels of the business – can be successful when combined with high participation.26 The inclusion of different types of workers, such as business and IT professionals, can help combat inertia from one level of the business. Participation is an important success factor in digital transformation, both for general success and for reducing employee resistance. As a result, companies are encouraged to include employees in the change process to overcome socio-cognitive inertia and to facilitate digital transformation.
Related TDL Content
Inertia refers to humans’ inability to alter the ways they process information, sticking with default mental models. As a result, inertia has also been linked to the status quo bias, which describes our resistance to change. Both inertia and the status quo bias include a reliance on defaults, although inertia focuses on inhibiting change while the status quo bias focuses on general avoidance of change. If you’re interested in learning more, take a look at this piece!
- Inertia. (2021, May 27). Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/science/inertia
- Mcguire, W. J. (1960). Cognitive consistency and attitude change. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 60(3), 345-353.
- Hodgkinson, G. P. (1997). Cognitive inertia in a turbulent market: The case of UK residential estate agents. Journal of Management Studies, 34(6) ,926-945.
- Guenther, C. L., & Alicke, N. D. (2008). Self-enhancement and belief perseverance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(3), 706-712.
- Nissani, M. (1994). Conceptual conservatism: An understated variable in human affairs? The Social Science Journal, 31(3), 307-318.
- Heider, F. (1958). The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations.
- Festinger, L. (1962). Cognitive dissonance. Scientific American, 207(4), 93-106.
- McGuire, W. J. (2013). An additional future for psychological science. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8(4), 414-423.
- Miller, D., & Chen, M. (1994). Sources and consequences of competitive inertia: A study of the U.S. airline industry. Administrative Science Quarterly, 39(1), 1-23.
- Habersang, S., Küberling, J., Reihlen, M., & Seckler, C. (2019). A process perspective on organizational failure: A qualitative meta-analysis. Journal of Management Studies, 56(1), 19-56.
- Narayanan, V. K., Zane, L. J., & Kemmerer, B. (2011). The cognitive perspective in strategy: An integrative review. Journal of Management, 37(1), 305-351.
- Huang, H., Lai, M., Lin, L., & Chen, C. (2012). Overcoming organizational inertia to strengthen business model innovation. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 26(6), 977-1002.
- Carrington, D. J., Combe, I. A., & Mumford, M. D. (2019). Cognitive shifts within leader and follower teams: Where consensus develops in mental models during an organizational crisis. The Leadership Quarterly, 30(3), 335-350.
- Walter, G. D. (2016). Proactive and reactive criminal thinking, psychological inertia, and the crime continuity conundrum. Journal of Criminal Justice, 46, 45-51.
- Alós-Ferrer, C., Hügelschäfer, S., & Li, D. (2016). Inertia and decision making. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 169.
- Liao, S. (2002). Problem solving and knowledge inertia. Expert Systems with Applications, 22(1), 21-31.
- Koval, P., Kuppens, P., Allen, N. B., & Sheeber, L. (2012). Getting stuck in depression: The roles of rumination and emotional inertia. Cognition and Emotion, 26(8), 1412-1427.
- Dicke, T. (2015). Waiting for the flu: Cognitive inertia and the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918-19. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 70(2), 195-217.
- About Margaret. (2021). Margaret Heffernan. https://www.mheffernan.com/biography.php
- Heffernan, M. (2011). Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril. Simon & Schuster.
- Kunda, Z. (1990). The case for motivated reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 108(3), 480-498.
- Stanley, M. L., Henne, P., Yang, B. W., & De Brigard, F. (2020). Resistance to position change, motivated reasoning, and polarization. Political Behavior, 42(1), 891-913.
- Stein, J. (1997). How institutions learn: A socio-cognitive perspective. Journal of Economic Issues, 31(3), 729-740.
- Uhlmann, A. J. (2005). The dynamics of stasis: Historical inertia in the evolution of the Australian family. The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 16(1), 31-46.
- Mattila, A. S. (2003). The impact of cognitive inertia on postconsumption evaluation processes. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 31(3), 287-299.
- Ertl, J., Soto Setzke, D., Böhm, M., & Krcmar, H. (2020). The role of dynamic capabilities in overcoming socio-cognitive inertia during digital transformation – A configurational perspective. In 15th International Conference on Wirtschaftsinformatik.