Cognitive inertia is the tendency for a particular orientation in how an individual thinks about an issue, belief or strategy to endure or resist change. The physics term inertia is to emphasize the rigidity and resistance to change in the method of cognitive processing the individual uses, especially after it has been in use for a significant amount of time.
Commonly confused with belief perseverance, cognitive inertia is the perseverance of how one interprets information, not the perseverance of the belief itself. In clinical and neuroscientific literature cognitive inertia is often defined as a lack of motivation to generate cognitive specific processes to attend to a problem or issue.
Cognitive inertia has been implicated in disregard of impending threat to one’s health or environment, enduring political values and deficits in task switching. Interest in cognitive inertia was largely taken up by economic and industrial psychologists to explain resistance to change in brand loyalty, group brainstorming and business strategies.
History and methods
The idea of cognitive inertia has its roots in philosophical epistemology. Early allusions to reduction of cognitive inertia can be found in the Socratic dialogues written by Plato. Socrates builds his argument by using the detractors beliefs as the premise to his arguments conclusions. In doing so, Socrates reveals the detractors fallacy of thought inducing the detractor to change their mind or face the reality that their thought processes are in contradiction. Ways to combat persistence of cognitive style is also seen in Aristotle’s syllogistic method which employs logical consistency of the premises to convince an individual of the conclusions validity.
In the beginning of the twentieth century two of the earliest experimental psychologists Müller and Pilzecker defined perseveration of thought to be, “the tendency of ideas, after once having entered consciousness, to rise freely again in consciousness”. Müller described perseveration by illustrating his own inability to inhibit old cognitive strategies with a syllable switching task while his wife easily switched from one strategy to the next. One of the earliest personality researchers, W. Lankes, more broadly defined perseveration as, “being confined to the cognitive side,” and may be, “counteracted by strong will”. These early ideas of perseveration were the precursor to how the term cognitive inertia would be used to study certain symptoms in patients with neurodegenerative disorders, rumination and depression.
Originally proposed by William J. McGuire in 1960, the theory of cognitive inertia was built upon emergent theories in social psychology and cognitive psychology that centered around cognitive consistency including, Fritz Heider’s balance theory and Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance. McGuire used the term cognitive inertia to account for an initial resistance to change how an idea was processed after new information, that conflicted with the idea, had been acquired.
In McGuire’s initial study involving cognitive inertia participants gave their opinions of how probable they believed a variety of topics to be. A week later they came back to read messages that related to the topics they had given their opinions on. The messages were presented as factual and were targeted to change the participants belief in how probable the topics were. Immediately after reading the messages, and one week later, the participants were again assessed on how probable they believed the topics to be. Discomforted by the inconsistency of the related information from the messages and their initial ratings on the topics, McGuire believed the participants would be motivated to shift their probability ratings to be more consistent with the factual messages. However, the participants opinions did not immediately shift toward the information presented in the messages. Instead, a shift towards consistency of thought on the information from the messages and topics grow stronger as time passed, often referred to as “seepage” of information. The lack of change was reasoned to be due to a persistence in the individual’s existing thought processes which inhibited their ability to properly re-evaluate their initial opinion, or as McGuire called it, cognitive inertia.
Group (cognitive) inertia, how a subset of individuals view and process an issue, can have detrimental effects on how an emergent and existing issues are handled. In an effort to describe to the almost lackadaisical attitude from a large majority of U.S. citizens toward the insurgence of the Spanish flu in 1918, historian Tom Dicke has proposed that cognitive inertia explains why many individuals did not take the flu seriously. At the time most U.S. citizens were familiar with the seasonal flu and viewed it as an irritation that was often easy to treat, infected few and passed quickly with few complications and hardly ever a death. However, this way of thinking about the flu was detrimental to the need for preparation, prevention and treatment of the Spanish flu, due to its quick spread and virulent form, until it was much too late and it became one of the most deadly pandemics in history.
In the more modern period, there is an emerging position that anthropogenic climate change denial is a kind of cognitive inertia. Despite the evidence provided by scientific discovery, there are still those – including nations – who deny its incidence in favor of existing patterns of development.
To better understand how individuals store and integrate new knowledge with existing knowledge Friedman and Brown tested participants on where they believed countries and cities to be located latitudinally and then after giving them the correct information tested them again on different cities and countries. The majority of participants were able to use the correct information to update their cognitive understanding of geographical locations and place the new locations closer to their correct latitudinal location which supported the idea that new knowledge not only affects the direct information but also related information. However, there was a small effect of cognitive inertia as some areas were unaffected by the correct information, which the researchers suggested was due to a lack of knowledge linkage in the correct information and new locations presented.
The persistence of political group membership and ideology is suggested to be due to the inertia of how the individual has perceived the grouping of ideas over time. The individual may accept that something counter to their perspective is true, but it may not be enough to tip the balance of how they process the entirety of the subject.
Cognitive inertia is implicated in institutional inertia, an inability for institutions to change along with social and technological transformation, owing to the fact that often, “people stick to their mental models and beliefs even ‘in the face of contradictory evidence’”. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama has asserted that humans imbue intrinsic value on the rules they enact and follow, especially in the larger societal institutions that create order and stability. Despite rapid social change and increasing institutional problems the value placed on the institutions creates a unique barrier to individuals changing how they view and understand how functional the institution is.
The unwavering views of the roles people play in our lives has been suggested as a form of cognitive inertia. When asked how they would feel about a classmate marrying their mother or father undergraduate students often said they would be unable to view their classmate in the role of step-father/mother. Some students went so far as to say that the hypothetical relationship felt like incest.
Role inertia has also been implicated in marriage and likelihood of divorce. Research on couples who co-habitat together before marriage shows they are more likely to get divorced than those who don’t. The effect is most seen in a subset of couples who co-habit without first being transparent about future expectations of marriage. Over time cognitive role inertia takes over and the couple marries without fully processing the decision, often with one or both of the partners not fully committed to the idea. The lack of deliberative processing of existing problems and levels of commitment in the relationship often lead to increased stress, arguments, dissatisfaction and divorce.
Cognitive inertia is often referenced in business and management to refer to consumers continued use of products, a lack of novel ideas in group brainstorming sessions and lack of change in competitive strategies.
Gaining and retaining new customers is an essential part of whether a business gets off the ground floor, however, despite often substandard products or services customers often don’t switch services or buy new products. Many companies use satisfaction surveys to assess service rendered as well as likelihood of customer retention, however, unless customers complete the survey immediately after the purchase or service their responses will often be based on past experience. Instead of updating how they view a company customers will continue to process the service or product provided as the same unless something extremely negative or positive occurs to inhibit cognitive inertia.
Cognitive inertia plays a role in why a lack of ideas are generated during group brainstorming sessions as it, “promotes one-track thinking and diminishes the performance of groups”. Individuals in a group will often follow an idea trajectory, in which they continue to narrow in on ideas based on the very first idea proposed in the brainstorming session. This idea trajectory actually inhibits the creation of new ideas that was central to the initial formation of the group.
In an effort to combat cognitive inertia in group brainstorming researchers had business students either use a single dialogue or multiple dialogue approach to brainstorming. In the single dialogue version the business students all listed their ideas and created a dialogue around the list, whereas in the multi-dialogue version ideas were placed in subgroups that individuals could choose to enter and talk about and then freely move to another subgroup. The multi-dialogue approach was able to combat cognitive inertia by allowing different ideas to simultaneously be generated in sub-groups and each time an individual switched to a different sub-group they had to change how they were processing the ideas which lead to more novel and high-quality ideas.
Adapting cognitive strategies to changing business climates is often integral to whether or not a business succeeds or fails during times of economic stress. In the late 1980s in the UK, real estate agents cognitive competitive strategies did not shift with signs of an increasingly depressed real estate market, despite their ability to acknowledge the signs of decline. This cognitive inertia at the individual and corporate level has been proposed as reasons to why companies don’t adopt new strategies to combat ever increasing decline in the business or take advantage of potential. General Mills’ continued operation of mills long after they were no longer necessary is an example of when companies refuses to change the mindset of how the company should operate.
More famously, cognitive inertia in upper management at Polaroid was proposed to be one of the main contributing factors for why competitive strategy for the company was not updated. Management strongly held that consumers wanted high quality physical copies of their photos and that was where the company would make their money. Despite Polaroid’s large research and development into the digital market their inability to refocus their strategy to hardware sales, instead of film eventually led to their collapse.
Scenario planning has been one suggestion to combat cognitive inertia when it comes to making strategic decisions to improve business. Individuals come up with different strategies and outline how the scenario could play out taking into account different ways it could go. Scenario planning allows for diverse ideas to be heard as well as the breadth of each scenario which can help combat relying on existing methods and thinking alternatives are unrealistic.
In a recent review of company archetypes that lead to corporate failure, Habersang, et al. defined, “the laggard,” as one who rests on the laurels of the company believing past success and recognition will shield them from failure. Instead of adapting to changes in the market, “the laggard,” assumes that the same strategies that won the company success in the past will do the same in the future. This lag in changing how they think about the company often leads to rigidity in company identity, like Polaroid, conflict in adapting when the sales plummet and resource rigidity. In the case of Kodak, instead of reallocating money to a new product/service strategy they cut production costs and imitation of competitors both leading to poorer quality product and eventually bankruptcy.
A review of 27 firms integrating the use of big data analytics found cognitive inertia to hamper the widespread implementation, with managers from sectors that didn’t focus on computer science seeing the change as unnecessary and cost prohibitive.
Managers with high cognitive flexibility that can change the type of cognitive processing based on the situation at hand are often the most successful in solving novel problems and keeping up with changing circumstances. Interestingly, shift in mental models (disrupting cognitive inertia) during company crisis are often at the lower group level with leaders coming to a consensus with the rest of the workforce, instead of vice versa, in how to process and deal with the crisis. It is proposed that leaders can often be blinded by their authority and too easily disregard those at the front-line of the problem causing them to reject remunerative ideas.
An inability to change how one thinks about a situation has been implicated as one of the causes of depression. Rumination, or the perseverance of negative thoughts, is often correlated with severity of depression and anxiety. Individuals with high levels of rumination often test low on scales of cognitive flexibility and have trouble shifting how they think about a problem or issue even when presented with facts that counter their thinking process.
In a review paper that outlined strategies that are effective for combating depression, the Socratic method was suggested to overcome cognitive inertia. By presenting the patients incoherent beliefs close together and evaluating with the patient their thought processes behind those beliefs, the therapist is able to help them understand things from a different perspective.
In nosological literature relating to the symptom or disorder of apathy, clinicians have used cognitive inertia as one of the three main criteria for diagnosis. The description of cognitive inertia differs from its use in cognitive and industrial psychology in that lack of motivation plays a key role. As a clinical diagnostic criteria, Thant and Yager described it as, “impaired abilities to elaborate and sustain goals and plans of actions, to shift mental sets, and to use working memory”. This definition of apathy is often applied to onset of apathy due to neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease but has also been applied to individual that have gone through extreme trauma or abuse.
Neural anatomy and correlates
Cognitive inertia has been linked to decreased use of executive function, primarily in the prefrontal cortex, which aids in flexibility of cognitive processes when switching tasks. Delayed response on the implicit associations task (IAT) and Stroop task have been related to an inability to combat cognitive inertia, as participants struggle to switch from one cognitive rule to the next to get the questions right.
Before taking part in an electronic brainstorming session participants were primed with pictures that motivated achievement to combat cognitive inertia. In the achievement primed condition subjects were able to produce more novel high quality ideas and had more use of right frontal cortical areas which were related to decision making and creativity.
Cognitive inertia is commonly used as one of the key dimensions of clinical apathy, described as a lack of motivation to elaborate plans for goal directed behavior or automated processing. Parkinson’s patients whose apathy was measured using the cognitive inertia dimension showed less executive function control than Parkinson’s patients without apathy, possibly suggesting more damage to the frontal cortex. Additionally, more damage to the basal ganglia in Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and other neurodegenerative disorders have been found with patients exhibiting cognitive inertia in relation to apathy when compared to those who don’t exhibit apathy. Patients with lesions to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex have shown reduced motivation to change cognitive strategies and how they view situations, similar to individuals who experience apathy and cognitive inertia after severe or long term trauma.
Nursing home patients who suffer from dementia have been found to have larger reductions in functional brain connectivity primarily in the corpus callosum, important for communication between hemispheres. Cognitive inertia in neurodegenerative patients has also been associated with a decrease in the connection of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and posterior parietal area with subcortical areas including the anterior cingulate cortex and basal ganglia. Both findings are suggested to decrease motivation to change one’s thought processes or create new goal directed behavior.
Some researchers have refuted the purely cognitive perspective of cognitive inertia and suggest a more holistic approach that takes into account the motivations, emotions and attitudes that fortify the existing frame of reference.
The theory of motivated reasoning is proposed to be driven by the individuals motivation to think a certain way, often to avoid thinking negatively about oneself. The individuals own cognitive and emotional biases are often used to justify a thought, belief or behavior. Unlike cognitive inertia where an individual’s orientation in processing information remains unchanged either due to new information not being fully absorbed or being blocked by a cognitive bias, motivated reasoning may actually change the orientation or keep it the same depending on whether that orientation benefits the individual.
In a large online study that covered five political issues participant opinions were acquired after reading about an issue, they were then randomly assigned to read more information on the subject that either confirmed, disconfirmed or gave a neutral presentation of information based on their opinion. The majority of participants opinions after reading the additional information did not change from the initial opinion. When asked about the information in the second reading those who did not change their opinions evaluated information that supported their initial opinion as stronger then information that disconfirmed their initial opinion. The persistence in how the participants viewed the incoming information was based on their motivation to be correct in their opinion, not the persistence of an existing cognitive perspective.
From a social psychology perspective individuals are continually forming and shaping beliefs and attitudes about the world around them based on interaction with others. What information the individual attends to is based on prior experience and knowledge of the world. Cognitive inertia is seen not just as a malfunction in updating how information is being processed but that the assumptions about the world and how it works can impede cognitive flexibility. The persistence of the idea of the nuclear family has been proposed as a socio-cognitive inertia. Despite the changing trends in family structure including multi-generational, single-parent, blended and same-sex parent families the normative idea of a family has centered around the mid-twentieth century idea of a nuclear family (i.e. mother, father, and children). Various social influences are proposed to maintain the inertia of this viewpoint, including media portrayals, persistence of working-class gender roles, unchanged domestic roles despite working mothers and familial pressure to conform.
The phenomenon of cognitive inertia in brainstorming groups has been argued to be due to other psychological effects such as fear of disagreeing with an authority figure in the group, fear of new ideas being rejected and the majority of speech being attributed to the minority of group members. Internet based brainstorming groups have been found to produce more ideas of high-quality because it overcomes the problem of speaking up and fear of idea rejection.
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Ofer Abarbanel is a 25 year securities lending broker and expert who has advised many Israeli regulators, among them the Israel Tax Authority, with respect to stock loans, repurchase agreements and credit derivatives. Founder of TBIL.co STATX Fund.