The Political Power of Inertia

Political scientists devote a lot of energy to theorizing about dramatic changes—things like revolutions, coups, popular uprisings, transitions to democracy, and the outbreak of wars within and between states. These changes are fascinating and consequential, but they are also extremely rare. In politics, as in physics, inertia is a powerful force. Our imagination is drawn to change, but if we want to understand the world as it is, then we have to explain the prevalence of continuity as well.

Examples of inertia in politics are easy to find. War is justifiably a central concern for political science, but for many decades now, almost none of the thousands of potential wars within and between states have actually happened. Once a war does start, though, it often persists for years in spite of the tremendous costs involved. The international financial system suffers frequent and sometimes severe shocks and has no sovereign to defend it, and yet the basic structure of that system has persisted for decades. Whole journals are devoted to popular uprisings and other social movements, but they very rarely happen, and when they do, they often fail to produce lasting institutional change. For an array of important phenomena in the social sciences, by far the best predictor of the status of the system at time (t + 1) is the status of the system at time (t).

One field in which inertia gets its due is organization theory. A central theme in that neck of the intellectual woods is the failure of firms and agencies to adapt to changes in their environment and the search for patterns that might explain those failures. Some theories of institutional design at the level of whole political systems also emphasize stasis over change. Institutions are sometimes said to be “sticky,” meaning that they often persist in spite of evident flaws and available alternatives. As Paul Pierson observes, “Once established, patterns of political mobilization, the institutional ‘rules of the game,’ and even citizens’ basic ways of thinking about the political world will often generate self-reinforcing dynamics.”

In international relations and comparative politics, we see lots of situations in which actions that might improve the lot of one or more parties are not taken. These are situations in which inertia is evident, even though it appears to be counterproductive. We often explain failures to act in these situations as the result of collective action problems. As Mancur Olson famously observed, people, organizations, and other agents have diverse interests; action to try to produce change is costly; and the benefits of those costly actions are often diffuse. Under these circumstances, a tally of expected costs and benefits will often discourage agents from taking action, tempting them instead to forego those costs and look to free ride on the contributions of others instead.

Collective action problems are real and influential. Still, I wonder if our theories put too much emphasis on those system-level sources of inertia and too little on causes at the level of the individual. We like to think of ourselves as free and unpredictable, but humans really are creatures of habit. For example, a study published in 2010 in Science (here) used data sampled from millions of mobile-phone users to show that there is “a potential 93% average predictability” in where users go and when, “an exceptionally high value rooted in the inherent regularity of human behavior.” The authors conclude that,

Despite our deep-rooted desire for change and spontaneity, our daily mobility is, in fact, characterized by a deep-rooted regularity.

A related study (here) used mobility and survey data from Kenya and found essentially the same thing. Its authors reported that “mobility estimates are surprisingly robust to the substantial biases in phone ownership across different geographical and socioeconomic groups.” Apparently, this regularity is not unique to rich countries.

The microfoundations of our devotion to routine may be evident in neurobiology. Behavioral routines are physically expressed and reinforced in the development of neural pathways related to specific memories and actions, and in the thickening of the myelin sheaths that facilitate conduction along those pathways. The result is a virtuous or vicious circle, depending on the behavior and context. Athletes and musicians take advantage of this process through practice, but practice is mostly repetition, and repetition is a form of routine. Repetition begets habituation begets repetition.

This innate attachment to routine may contribute to political inertia. Norms and institutions are often regarded as clever solutions to collective action problems that would otherwise thwart our interests and aspirations. At least in part, those norms and institutions may also be social manifestations of an inborn and profound preference for routine and regularity.

In our theoretical imaginations, we privilege change over stasis. As alternative futures, however, the two are functionally equivalent, and stasis is vastly more common than change. In principle, our theories should cover both alternatives. In practice, that is very hard to do, and many of us choose to emphasize the dramatic over the routine. I wonder if we have chosen wrong.

For now, I’ll give the last word on this topic to Frank Rich. He wrote a nice essay for the October 20, 2014, issue of New York Magazine about an exercise in which he read his way back through the daily news from 1964 to compare it to the supposedly momentous changes afoot in 2014. His conclusion:

Even as we recognize that the calendar makes for a crude and arbitrary marker, we like to think that history visibly marches on, on a schedule we can codify.

The more I dove back into the weeds of 1964, the more I realized that this is both wishful thinking and an optical illusion. I came away with a new appreciation of how selective our collective memory is, and of just how glacially history moves.

Leave a comment


  1. Excellent! I always found the vested interest explanation too naked, too thin. There is definitely something more to it. Think of Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger as well as Herbesrt Simons´s classic on organizational change; a vested interest may encompass more than an economic or a power perspective, but also of the feelings of security and safety. To relax in the familiar, the constant, somewhat familiar to a religion. Eventually, the vested interests seems to need an expanded definition. One that provides space for a much wider range of preferences (informing ‘interests’) than those offered by the more explicit, visible and pronounced antagonistic interests, primarily identified due to visibility and representation of relative power. It appears the large space in between -the passive, the indifferent, the reactionary and conservative interests- is just as potent an explanation as a those that take up space in the public debate. The blind spot of inertia still keep us in the dark.

  2. Seva

     /  October 25, 2014

    Perfect example of how individual inertia can prevent the spread of beneficial innovations:

    Still a lot more room for theory development about unexpected non-diffusion…

    • Great article, thanks for pointing it out. The author certainly has a theory: “People talking to people is still how the world’s standards change.” I agree with you, though, that this is surely incomplete.

      I also appreciated the bit at the end about how a change in routines for the nurse involved a temporary increase in workload, and therefore stress. Only after the new routines have been practiced for a while is the workload reduced again. That’s a great illustration of an individual-level source of inertia that presumably affects many political behaviors, too. Some people seek and enjoy certain kinds of stress, but most of us strongly prefer to avoid it, and that’s a tough barrier to surmount.

  3. Horrible English! Apologies for lack of editing.

  4. Reblogged this on the road not taken.

  5. Jay, I would certainly agree with any assessment that concluded continuity is more typical in situations (and certainly institutional contexts) than is any sort of meaningful change. I have on more than one occasion in the last couple of years been just a bit chagrined to realize that I have a professional and probably in-born bias towards seeing or anticipating big change.

    If I could seek clarity, though: when you say that “As alternative futures, however, the two are functionally equivalent,” what do you mean?

    If we were to talk in terms of likelihood, again I would be fine with the general rule of thumb that continuity is more likely for a lot of things over a lot of time scales. But I think the function of alternative futures (as a thought process or exercise) is specifically to consider meaningful change from what we experience right now. My clients don’t really need a whole lot of help thinking through what they are going to do two or three years (or ten years) hence if the systems and contexts within which they currently operate remain the same.

    Of course, this is also where we often have to wrestle with the logical alternatives that are incremental change versus those alternatives that forecast more dramatic or punctuated change.

    An overdeveloped bias towards change over continuity will certainly skew a group’s thought process, but it seems to me that what’s needed (with decision makers) is an approach that artfully frames the difference between the value of seriously considering change in relation to the possibilities for both continuity and change.

    • “Functionally” is probably the wrong word there, or at least it needs clarification. I think I meant something more like “ontologically,” but that’s one of those words that should almost never see the light of day outside niche journal articles.

      Anyway, the point I was trying to make is that whatever future arrives is objectively equivalent to any other. We might value different versions differently, sometimes for the reasons you describe. That’s something we project onto the process, however, not something inherent in it. So, if we’re trying to develop theory that describes the world as it is, not as it alarms or delights us, then we shouldn’t over-emphasize change.

      Does that make more sense?

      • Yes, that does make sense. Thank you. And this all reminds me that whereas most books and scholars would talk about “theories of change” my professor was quite explicit about using the phrase “theories of change and stability.”

  6. Tobias

     /  October 28, 2014

    You strike a theme which is big in the study of policy dynamics. Herbert Simon and the concept of bounded rationality is certainly the starting point. What I found very interesting in this regard is the work by Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones which developed their notion of punctuated equilibrium and politics of attention into a Theory of Information processing (see e.g. Jones, Bryan D./Baumgartner, Frank R. (2012): From There to Here: Punctuated Equilibrium to the General Punctuation Thesis to a Theory of Government Information Processing, in: The Policy Studies Journal, 40, Nr. 1, 1–19.). They do not speak of ineartia but of friction (cognitive/organizational and institutional) which has the advantage to integrate long times of stability and short bursts of activity and (sometimes) radical change.

    • I enjoyed Politics and the Architecture of Choice (2001) by Jones. It added another key perspective for me, and at both the micro and institutional levels. And it continues to amaze me how many organizational decision makers out there have not been at all exposed to bounded rationality (as a formal concept).

  7. This has been a big focus of the habit/practice people in IR.

    • Which wasn’t part of the IR curriculum where and when I studied it twenty years ago, and which I haven’t noticed in the intervening decades because I haven’t had the means or incentives to stay current with the field. So shame on me, and thanks for pointing this out.

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