What is psychological inertia? or… What is wrong with us?
Have you ever been in a situation where while discussing different solutions for a problem, you and your group is trying to solve, people finding all kind of reasons why something is impossible or extremely difficult? The arguments might sound like “It’s very difficult”, “This solution is very expensive”, “It’s not going to work!”, or even “This is a stupid idea!” I am pretty certain you have. This phenomenon, and many more, are part of Psychological Inertia.
Now, let’s dive into the details.
I always like to start with the plain and dry definition. Unfortunately, Cambridge dictionary does not have this definition, so I’ll have to default to Wikipedia:
Psychological inertia is the tendency to maintain the status-quo (or default option) unless compelled by a psychological motive to intervene or reject this. … Psychological inertia has also seen to be relevant in areas of health, crime and within the workplace.
Now, this is a lot of words in one long sentence. I personally had to reread it multiple times to actually understand what it means, and frankly, without having the background on the subject, I am not sure if I ever could get it correctly and interpret it to the real-life experience.
I’ll try to explain what does it mean in my view based on our experience and real-life events and examples.
It can’t be done!
For the matter of this article, “It can’t be done” is the same as “It is too expensive”, “extremely difficult”, or any other way to say that some idea is not good enough. I want to come back and expand on the same example I described at the very beginning.
Many times throughout my career, I’ve seen myself and others getting stuck on various reasons why not to evaluate a solution, why not experiment with an idea, and so on. Some might call it excuses or laziness, but the reality is, we don’t really want to do or try something that we don’t believe in.
So, unless there is some outside force, an additional push that can prove us wrong, we will resist a proposed solution we don’t believe in until the end of days.
Unwillingness to explore something we don’t believe in is part of psychological inertia.
When we first started to present the idea of problem-solving tools to other people and tried explaining what are they good for, the majority (and many still to this day) were very skeptical about it. Here are a couple of arguments we were getting:
What’s wrong what how people solve problems today?
How can you create tools that help me solve problems? it’s all coming from my experience!
If I have a problem that I am stuck with, I’ll hire a professional!
Note: I want to highlight that this skepticism is also caused by psychological inertia. It’s just another version of “It can’t be done because I don’t believe in it!”
Back to Professional Experience…
For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume that the cloud below is the entire, currently available, and continuously growing knowledge and experience.
The experience of our engineers, John, Maria and Bob, are marked with different shapes and colors. Well, of course, they do have different experiences, right? And some of their knowledge overlaps. Great!
The solutions that we are searching for are marked with red dots. If you noticed, one of the solutions falls well within the existing experience of our great engineers. But what about the two others? This is exactly the point where the team starts scratching their heads, searching the web, and trying to come up with different ideas for how to solve this particular problem. It is important to say though, that when they do provide a solution outside of their expertise, for the most part, these are not easily accepted. Why? Again, because people are generally don’t accept what they don’t believe in, what they don’t understand, and what they didn’t experience themselves.
Another point to make, it takes awful a lot of time to provide solutions that fall outside of our expertise. One might say: “Of course it takes more time, to do it, you have to learn something new and, ultimately, expand your experience!” And it is not going to be wrong. Nevertheless, there is another reason – psychological inertia. We are naturally seeking solutions within our experience.
Same as in the previous part, unless there is an outside force that will push us, it is hard to look outside of our own experience. Without such force, the only team’s chance is a lot of trial and error and some luck.
Difficulty in search for solutions outside of our own experience is caused by psychological inertia.
The comfort zone
In order to get out there and start digging into the unknown, we need to leave our comfort zone. It is easier said than done. There is a reason why the comfort zone is called the comfort zone. It is comfortable to stay there, easier to operate, it does not require any additional effort to be in the comfort zone. That’s understandable. To get out of it, we have to learn something new, try things we never did before; we need to invest in real work to do so. But we, as humans, are pretty lazy, aren’t we?
An average person will always choose the path of least resistance. But there is a catch… the choice will be out all the options within the available knowledge of that person. There very well might be another, even easier path, which is simply not yet explored. However, to explore that path, one will have to get out of his comfort zone.
Difficulty to break out of our comfort zone to search for better solutions is caused by psychological inertia.
But humanity is always progressing!
I can probably endlessly continue with examples and what our psychological inertia causes. In general, it will all be the same, from a different angle. I do want to switch gears a bit.
Many people we presented our solution to told us: “But humanity is always progressing without any special tools!”. For that, I will answer: “That is simply not true!”. And here is why.
Certainly, humanity IS progressing and IS innovating all the time. Some individuals did and doing it exceptionally well. Take Nikola Tesla as an example. His brain was probably exploding with ideas, he was virtually living outside of his comfort zone all the time. Let’s just say, he was not wired as most of us. Many other notable geniuses are/were thinking differently. They are geniuses for a reason!
An average human being also innovates. But here I want to ask how much effort and how long it takes. Countless examples of innovations that look trivial today, originally took many many years to be discovered and developed, even though the technology already existed (look up the history of a suitcase on wheels – it took over 10 years from the original version to the first accepted once that people actually used).
Regardless of how we innovate and generate ideas, in order to do it faster, we must use some sort of systematic approach. Whatever that approach is. Without that, all we have is the time waiting for revelation.
Any systematic approach to problem-solving helps to break out of psychological inertia.
Before I wrap up, I want to answer the second question in the title of this article: “What is wrong with us?”.
The simplest answer for that is: “Nothing!”. We are just being humans. This is how we are wired and how we think. Try reading more about psychological inertia, you’ll see that this phenomenon is not well understood, including the reasons for it. And to understand that is not the purpose of this article, it will not solve any problem for us as innovators. Breaking out of psychological inertia WILL solve a lot of problems!
Ironically, to break out of psychological inertia, we need to accept that we need help with it. And this, within itself, is bound by psychological inertia. The faster we accept this fact, the faster we can start improving our thinking and become more creative innovators.
Breaking out of pattern
Now, that we accepted our faith, let’s start changing it.
Several tools and methodologies exist for that. The simplest is a pen and paper or a whiteboard. Some more sophisticated include different charting tools, idea management tools, project management tools, and so on.
PRIZ Innovation Platform is the only SaaS tool specifically built for one purpose only; to help engineers break out of pattern – out of psychological inertia. At its core, it offers various problem-solving tools. And as a reminder, innovation is a solution for somebody’s problem.
Get out there and innovate with the PRIZ Innovation Platform! We can’t wait to see what crazy ideas you will come up with!