Psychology of Inertia: Why Making Change Is Hard

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Change can be hard. But what makes change so difficult? And why do humans make some changes, like ditching cable, more readily than others? 

At Marcus, we think about this resistance to change all the time when it comes to peoples’ relationships with their banks. Consumers know that better banks are out there – banks that offer better rates on savings accounts. Yet for some reason, many Americans choose to stick with their big banks and low rates. (We’re talking rates that start with a zero).

In fact, according to a recent survey we conducted, for customers who have a traditional and online bank, nearly half (49%) of those customers surveyed have had their savings account at a traditional bank for more than 18 years. 

We wanted to dig into what’s going on here, so we sat down with Patrick Perkins and Chelsea Rodriguez from Goldman Sachs’ leadership development organization, Pine Street. Perkins, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology, and Rodriguez, who has a master’s in social-organizational psychology, shared their views on the psychology of inertia. 

What makes humans so resistant to change?

Rodriguez: We know that part of what makes change difficult is how engrained your patterns and habits are. From a neuroscience perspective, the neural pathways that encode to certain behaviors and patterns are quite fixed, especially by the time you’re an adult. 

There’s also this concept of humans as “cognitive misers,” which is the idea that we’re hard-wired to expend as little cognitive energy as possible.

If there’s any small barrier that stops a person from making a change, they are likely to stick with what they know.

So in the case of trying to change or adopt new habits, you want to make sure you’re doing everything you can to reduce complexity and any barriers. Doing this is going to require less energy for your brain to adapt to a new way of thinking or doing things.

Why are some changes harder to make than others? (Candidly we’re wondering: Why is it so hard for people to switch their bank?)

Perkins: One big factor is clinging to comfort and going with the safe bet. And in this case, trusting something like a large financial institution. It’s something that people can feel some level of safety in, and taking something that stable away from somebody in exchange for something unknown is a big mental shift for people to make.

This also relates to signing up for 401(k) plans or doing things that on the surface are seemingly rational and make sense, but people just won’t do them.

And there are multiple factors involved, it’s not just the comfort thing. If there’s any small barrier that stops a person from making a change, they are likely to stick with what they know. 

In instances where people are changing behaviors more readily, there’s some kind of immediate and tangible outcome they can see. If you sign up for Uber, you can instantly get Uber to come. Whereas if you sign up for a high-yield savings account, the benefits are not as immediate – it takes some time. 

You both keep mentioning “barriers” when it comes to making a change. What are some of the other barriers that we need to break through in order for people to make a change? 

Perkins: What you see with inertia is that people are usually guided by an underlying psychological belief or principle, and then when they’re faced with something they perceive that either confirms that belief or does not sufficiently cause them to re-evaluate it, they are not likely to change.

The other piece is around nudging. How can you make the new pattern or habit you want to establish more favorable?

Underlying beliefs are actually behind the concept of automatic thoughts, which are thoughts that happen so quickly for an individual that many times, they are not aware of them. They operate just under the surface and unless you uncover them and actively challenge them, they are quite persistent. When automatic thoughts become problematic in some way, they then turn into cognitive distortions and literally distort reality for a person. In these cases, a person holds on to some idea even though there is plenty of evidence to refute it.  

So an example of an underlying automatic thought would be “it really won’t make a difference if I change this” or “what’s the point?” It’s going to be harder to shift behaviors with these automatic thoughts. 

If humans are hard-wired to resist change, is there any hope? What steps can individuals take to actually make a change?

Rodriguez: Part of what you need to focus on is disrupting those neural pathways that I mentioned and creating new ones. “If / then” plans can be a really effective way to do this, and the premise is quite simple. 

Take fitness as a classic example. If you’re waking up and heading straight to the kitchen to eat breakfast or heading straight to the bathroom to brush your teeth, how can you interrupt that pattern by introducing an if / then pattern that instructs you to think, “Okay, if it’s 9 o’clock and I have not yet headed to the gym, then I will grab the bag that I’ve already packed with my gym clothes and head to the gym.” 

The other piece is around nudging. How can you make the new pattern or habit you want to establish more favorable?

If you’ve got two different things that you can do, how do you make the one that’s going to get you closer to your goal more favorable than the other one? That could be as simple as putting a post-it note on your computer that reminds you that choosing one sort of retirement plan is going to get you to your savings goal quicker than not.

Reaching your goal starts with saving for it.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for individualized professional advice. Articles on this site were commissioned and approved by Marcus by Goldman Sachs®, but may not reflect the institutional opinions of The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc., Goldman Sachs Bank USA or any of their affiliates, subsidiaries or divisions.