Psychological Inertia

by Chris Fillebrown

What is psychological inertia?

In this article we are going to have some fun and build our own definition. Then we will react to that definition to explore its meaning.

Merriam-Webster OnLine provides us with these definitions:

psy•cho•log•i•cal – directed toward the will or toward the mind specifically in its cognitive function

in•er•tia – a property of matter by which it remains at rest or in uniform motion in the same straight line unless acted upon by some external force

This is where the fun begins!

Let’s splice these separate definitions together and see what we come up with:

Psychological inertia is cognitive function which remains at rest or in uniform motion in the same straight line unless acted upon by some external force.

Understandable, but wordy and dry. Not the right kind of fun. Let’s see if we can state the definition so that it makes sense within the context of solution-strategies and human behavior.

Psychological inertia is the tendency of people to think about things the same way unless acted upon by some external force.

Now that’s a definition we can work with!

This article will not cover every aspect of psychological inertia. All this article attempts to do is to throw a bucket of water on the invisible contours of psychological inertia. The force of psychological inertia is the most powerful influence on your success or failure as a problem-solver. If you as a thought leader fail to properly manage psychological inertia, your success will be limited at best. Flip that idea around the other way. If you have success that is limited at best, perhaps it is because you failed to recognize and manage the influence of psychological inertia on your solution-strategy. We have to be clear up front that psychological inertia is a factor in any problem domain that involves people. Psychological inertia is even a factor in a problem that involves only one person. The simple act of observation alters the outcome of an experiment. Objectivity is a myth.

For the purpose of this article, we will discuss psychological inertia in the most general terms. Psychological inertia is the product of education and upbringing. It accounts for everything from the pedestrian tasks of walking to the silly ritual stuck inside your head. If we are thinking, our thoughts have motion. Thoughts in motion, like objects in motion, have inertia. Thoughts tend to stay in motion. There is no doubt about it. Psychological inertia gives thoughts continuity over time. Psychological inertia builds habits through familiarity and repetition. Discipline relies on psychological inertia. Without psychological inertia, there is no discipline. Psychological inertia both creates problems, and solves them. The only thing that makes psychological inertia more complex than it is in an individual’s mind is psychological inertia in a group of minds. Psychological inertia is a constant within an organization. By definition, psychological inertia is present in any situation that involves people. It must be accounted for by a thought leader in order to solve a problem.

Is psychological inertia good or bad?

It depends on the situation. It is a fact that must be accounted for by a thought leader. A thought leader is the external force that acts upon the tendency of people to think about things the same way. A thought leader is an external force that that realigns psychological inertia along the lines of a solution-strategy. A thought leader identifies the negative influence of psychological inertia within the group, and takes steps to neutralize it. A thought leader identifies the positive influence of psychological inertia in a group, and takes steps to amplify it. A thought leader must not only identify the subtle influence of psychological inertia at every level of the problem domain, but also manage the currents of thoughts that flux within the minds of the group.

I will close this introduction to psychological inertia with some questions.

Ask yourself these questions as you think about the problems you are trying to solve.

  • How do you recognize the presence of psychological inertia?
  • How do you factor psychological inertia into your choice of solution-strategy?
  • How do you distinguish between the positive and negative influences of psychological inertia?
  • How can you neutralize the negative influence of psychological inertia?
  • How can you amplify the positive influence of psychological inertia?

©2009, Chris Fillebrown, All Rights Reserved