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.