The Power of Inertia

For Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, inertia plays a critical role in the idea of using nudges to influence people toward making good decisions. Particularly in regard to default choices, inertia matters a lot. People accept defaults, and making any change, whether it is trivial, important, time consuming, or very simple, is stubbornly resisted by many people. Think about how likely you are to change your desktop background, to change your phone’s ringtone, to order something new at your usual Tuesday night restaurant, to fix the broken windshield visor in your car, or to change your weekend morning routine.

 

Once people develop a status quo, once a default has been set, the power of inertia sets in. Sunstein and Thaler in Nudge write, “First, never underestimate the power of inertia. Second, that power can be harnessed.”

 

Harnessing the power of inertia can be sinister, but for Sunstein and Thaler, that is not the point. When a company offers you a free three month trial if you use a credit card to sign-up, they are counting on making money off your inertia. However, when a state organ donation program auto-enrolls every who applies for a drivers license, they are counting on inertia to help save lives. Inertia can be leveraged not just to make money off lazy and forgetful people, but to help make life simpler, easier, and even longer for people. In our individual lives we can harness inertia to build a workout routine, to stop buying cookies at the store, and to eat an apple during our 15 minute break every morning. For public officials, inertia can be harnessed when public programs make it easy for people to register to vote, to automatically receive social services, and to pay taxes.

 

Companies who count of people forgetting to cancel a subscription after a free trial and companies who expect that people won’t spend time shopping for alternatives once they sign up for monthly services give the power of inertia a bad reputation. They make it hard for public agencies and elected officials to credibly discuss programs designed to take advantage of or at least acknowledge people’s inability to escape inertia. But this should be a serious discussion in public policy. It is important to think about whether people will make changes in their lives to adopt measures that will help them be more safe, live healthier, and cooperate better. When we see a clear preference in how we want people to interact, we should discuss ways to help people behave as we wish they would, if we can recognize a particular decision is what people would chose for themselves if they were to make the effort of choosing anything at all. We don’t have to eliminate choices or bar people from behave otherwise, but we can use nudges, defaults, and the power of inertia to help people make and stick with better choices.

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