ITL #125 Overcoming a mountain of passivity: The power of inertia in change management

8 years, 10 months ago


Attempts to change attitudes and behaviours often founder due to target audience inertia. In order to succeed, communicators must develop a clearer appreciation of the human tendency to take the path which represents the least risk. By Andy Green.

A profound reality overlooked by most public relations programmes is the assumption that there will be arguments for or against. Those for a change and those against, those who see Black while others see White.
Yet, they ignore the fundamental truth of human nature: that even when facing a life or death choice, the choice elected by the majority do NOTHING.
In seeking to create change in attitudes, opinions or behaviours your biggest obstacle is not alternative proposals for change. Your biggest mountain to climb is... inertia; people will opt not to make a decision, rather than taking action.
Inertia is not to be confused with apathy. 
Inertia is defined as ‘the tendency of a body to resist acceleration’.
Apathy is defined as ‘an absence or suppression of emotion, passion or excitement’.
Cause of frustration
It can be frustrating for communicators when you face the experience where you seemingly have secured engagement and the interest of your target audience, but then follows their disillusionment as the tacit indications of support fail to translate into subsequent activity: people may smile to your face, but subsequently not act.
Inertia is a product of engagement with you, where there may be some initial excitement, passion and emotion but then lacks the contingent action to translate the interest into tangible outcomes.
So what is going on here?
A key principle in communications and marketing is that people don’t choose what is best: they choose what appears to be least risk. For communicators, if you want to change someone’s behaviours, attitudes, or opinions you need to ensure your change option represents least risk.
A rather remarkable psychological study has unlocked a remarkable window into people’s minds. Psychologist John Leach of the University of Lancaster, England analysed the real-life reactions of passengers when faced with the situation of a potential aircraft disaster; the plane is still on the ground, but the cabin is filling up with smoke.
His study interviewed survivors from a number of incidents and its conclusions were remarkable. In response to perilous situations, according to Leach’s study, 15% of people will panic, 15% will take constructive action to respond to their environment and try to escape. The majority, 70%, will just sit there, somehow hoping this new reality is not happening to them. 
Yes, a majority of people will choose to sit and die, rather than take action. That’s right. DEATH is more acceptable than being seen to stand out and take action.
Normative heuristic
This is evidence of what is called the ‘normative heuristic’. In psychology, heuristics are simple, efficient rules which people often use to form judgments and make decisions. These mental shortcuts usually involve focusing on one aspect of a complex problem and ignoring others.
In everyday life these rules work well, but can at times lead to illogical, irrational, and improbable thinking – leading to at best sub optimum, or at worst plain stupid – and even deadly responses and decisions.
The people sitting still in the burning plane scenario are not unintelligent. Psychologists presume that people sitting still are somehow rationalizing that if they act and hope for ‘normal’, somehow ‘normality’ will prevail, and so have to avoid making uncomfortable decisions.
According to French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, everyone occupies a position in a social space, which consists of their social class, relationships and networks. In their lives people develop a set of behaviours, lifestyle and habits (which Bourdieu referred to as ‘habitus’) which will more than likely serve to maintain the status quo of the individual and their context.
Thus, people are encouraged to accept the social world as it is, to take it for granted, rather than to rebel against it, to counterpoise to it different, even antagonistic, possibilities.
Moment of truth
The revelation of how people respond to critical situations, such as an aeroplane on fire, reveals a moment of truth, a universal insight into the key categories of any group. 
In any situation you have three core responses:
  • active positively or negatively engaged - a small minority of 15% 
  • a group distracted by other things - again a small minority of 15%
  • great inert mass in the middle - the 70%
Even Adolf Hitler in his analysis of how communications [or propaganda] works, recognized the communicator needed to communicate to three types of audience: ‘the fighters, the lukewarm, and the traitors’
My work also involves developing new ideas and ways of doing for community social capacity and collaborative working. (Check out the Barry IdeasBank:
My experience mirrors that of others in managing online communities. In any online social network you tend to get a ‘1:9:90 Rule’: 
  • 1% of the community post
  • 9% will add to others posts
  • 90% lurk - passively watching others but taking no action themsleves.
The situation of online passivity is therefore even more stark – only 10% will take action, with 90% just observing as spectators. (I assume the 15% of the group who would have been panicking in the plane scenario are not present in the online community, as it represents a distilled,  refined, self-selected group, thus precluding the minority of ‘panickers’.)
As a result of Leach’s study and the 1:9:90 Rule I’ve come to a conclusion that the overhwleming response state for the majority is to do nothing, or don’t stray from their existing behaviour pattern. This has led me to facetiously coin ‘Green’s Law of Social Inertia’.
Green’s Law of Social Inertia states: ‘Only a minority - between 10-15% - will take action, while a majority - between 70-90% - will be inert, spectators to change.’
So, how do you get the majority of people outside the core 10-15% group to take action to a new innovation or change you want to see?
The answer is you don’t get people to change. Instead, you change their context.
Everett Rogers’ classic model of ‘Diffusion of Innovations’ (first published over 50 years ago in 1962) is a useful analytical tool. He identified five categories of people in response to change: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards.
  • Innovators (probably equivalent to the 1% on social networks who make original posts) are willing to take risks, where their risk tolerance allows them to adopt new ideas and activities that may ultimately fail. When their risks succeed however, they lead a trail for others to follow.
  • Early Adopters (equivalent to the 9% who add to posts on online communities) are more discreet in adoption choices than innovators, making more judicious choice of new ideas and activities to adopt. If successful however, they will be ahead of the rest of the pack.

  • Early Majority adopt innovations after a varying degree of time, significantly longer than the innovators and early adopters. 
  • Late Majority adopt innovations after the average participant. They initially approached the innovation with a high degree of scepticism and after the majority of society has adopted the innovation. 
  • Laggards are the last to adopt an innovation, with a strong aversion to change. 
  • Leapfroggers are those later adopters who when embracing change may often skip over several earlier iterations in order to reach the most recent version of the innovation.
If you want the majority to take on board your new innovation or change you don’t persuade them to change their minds viz your innovation or change agenda. 
Rather you change their context; they are not changing because of your appeals to act. They act when it appears more painful not to change, where there is a growing number around them providing evidence that ‘everyone else seems to be changing’, thus creating a tipping point for change.
The lesson is, if you want to recruit the Early and Late Majorities get them to follow their neighbour who has changed rather than seek to change their attitudes to the innovation. 
A reframed question 
During my career I have been heavily involved in public relations work in the field of urban and community regeneration work. I used to operate to a question, which I now recognise would lead me down a path of frustrated ambitions when I asked: ‘How do we get everyone to...?’ 
Now, having knowledge of ‘Green’s Law of Social Inertia’, I recognise that if you want to create change in a community, I would now pose the question as, ‘How do you get the 10-15% of the community who will engage in change to ...’ 
I would consequently focus my energies on the 10-15% who make up the active community, - the Connectors, people who act on their own iniative, who are pro-active in taking action, who possess the real potential for change rather than a broad, wide-ranging appeal to the masses.
I recently presented to a major organization playing a lead role in creating social change. When sharing this concept of targeting the 10-15%, I could see by the body language that a number felt uncomfortable with this idea,  fearing, I suspect, that this approach could be open to accusations of being elitists or non-inclusive.
My response to this understandable fear is, each of us can be anti or pro the status quo in different situations and circumstances; put me on a desert island and I will probably be attempting to move the palm trees soon after arrival - so would be among the minority wishing to make changes to their environment. 
Yet the same person, when faced with making changes to their electricity, telephone or insurance service provider is profoundly inert. Even though friends advise me, I am aware of, have full knowledge of better deals, I am still resistant to act (perhaps fearful of further paperwork and time burdens in making the change). 
We all represent a complex mosaic of influences that govern our propensity for change. In different circumstances our social class, gender, age or ethnicity may influence our individual willingness to change. But there’s never just a solitary determining factor.
How do you spot the potential Connector?
Again, from my work in developing community collaboration through the Barry Ideasbank I have discovered a good indicator of a person’s potential for activity and engagement; their activity on social media. A person’s propensity to retweet, share, gives clues that they have the potential to be nudged further as an active Connector.
Moving forward, using ‘Green’s Law’ we now have a process model for change management that has three prime groups.
The 10-15% minority for change I would label ‘Connectors’ and ‘DisConnectors’- people who at their own volition, or prompted, make connections to your idea, message or campaign and relate it to their context, and by doing so help change this context. Either in a positive way as a ‘Connector’, or in the negative as a ‘DisConnector’.
Massive Passives or Great Refuseniks?
Thinking of what to call the great inert mass in the middle I initially thought of a potentially meme-friendly label of ‘Massive Passives’. Yet I was reminded through reading Brooke Gladstone’s excellent ‘The Influencing Machine’ of Dante’s description of what he calls ‘The Great Refusal’: 
The poets enter the gate and the initial sights and sounds of Hell at once assail Dante; he is moved deeply and horrified by the sight of spirits in deep pain. The unending cries make Dante ask where they come from, and Virgil replies that these are the souls of the uncommitted, who lived for themselves, and of the angels who were not rebellious against God nor faithful to Satan. Neither Heaven nor Hell would have them, and so they must remain here with the selfish, forever running behind a banner and eternally stung by hornets and wasps. Worms at their feet eat the blood and tears of these beings.
So, I’m now kind of fond of a different label for the ‘Massive Passives’ - the ‘Great Refuseniks’. (I’ll put both terms out in the Infosphere and explore if either one wins out.)
These different groups are defined by the attitudes and behaviours which shape their relationship with you, their likely word of mouth engagement, and, as a result, their potential future next moves.
In any change management campaign you have three primary ways of distinguishing the important people in any campaign:  
  • ‘Brand Connectors - the active positively engaged or
  • ’Brand DisConnectors’ - the active negative engaged
  • Great Refuseniks - great inert mass in the middle - contained within which may be sub-groups at their margins. Some of these you may be able to influence to become Connectors or DisConnectors.
  • Distracted minority (the equivalent of those panicking in the aeroplane fire.)
  • High engagement - in positive mode
  • Offer unprompted and prompted positive word of mouth
  • Potential to say ‘Yes!’
  • Potential to alienate to extreme alternative position of Brand DisConnectors if they perceive they have been badly treated.
  • High engagement - in negative mode
  • Offer unprompted and prompted negative word of mouth
  • Potential to say ‘No!’
  • Potential to adopt extreme alternative position of Brand Connectors, under their own motivation, if alienated by perceived actions of their DisConnector group.
Great Refuseniks/
Massive Passives
  • Low engagement - in neutral mode
  • Can however offer prompted word of mouth - in either positive or negative terms - if heavily prompted
  • Strong likelihood of not making any response or to be in a low state of ambivalence to say ‘maybe’, ‘yes’, or ‘no’
Recognizing the reality of the immense power of inertia can lead one to be dismissive of the passive condition.
There is a lot to be said for inertia. Not making change can often be the optimum strategy.
For a majority, least risk is represented by no change to their familiar, known, and what is perceived to be reliable. Change, by contrast, represents the uncertain, unknown, and untested.
Murphy’s Law – if things can go wrong, they will – has stood the test of time for many people. I’m reminded of the memorable scene in Spielberg’s film ‘Schindler’s List’ where the head of a bourgeois Jewish family complains to his wife about their plight, and reacts despairingly to her pleas that ‘Things could be worse’
As they enter the squalor of their new home in the Warsaw ghetto he declares: "How can things get any worse than this!" At which point a Cossack-looking peasant family arrive to share their accommodation!
Inertia can often be the best possible route, even in the most difficult or trying of circumstance. 
I muse how many politicians in the West wish they had stuck with the heinous regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq rather than now having to deal with the Isis regime in the region.
The benefits of adopting ‘Green’s Law on Social Inertia’ for public relations communicators, change managers or those engaged with innovation are profound:
  • You recognize the profound resistance to change not as a negative, counter force, being out in opposition to you, but rather one that is inert and inherent.
  • Instead of beating yourself up in frustration that you are not engaging with the whole 100% of a population, recognise the reality that only 10-15% will engage with change.

  • Rather than being lazy and thinking there is only 15% you need to engage with, you need to redouble your energies and focus to ensure you engage and motivate your Connectors.

  • By focussing your precious energies and resources on the minority willing to engage for change you avoid wasteful diffusion and spreading your assets too thinly.

  • By recognising that the Great Refuseniks or Massive Passives will only take action when their context changes, you change your messaging to focus on their change of context rather than repeating your same message for change.

  • Your listening skills are enhanced as you listen in the first instance for clues for propensity for change among your target audience as well as their responses to your messages.
For communicators, inertia is a crucial element to identify and understand.
Recognising its existence, and how you need to focus energy and resource on the few, will enable you to achieve better results, and help to avoid burn-out, disillusionment and disenchantment with the whole change process.
I suspect only a minority of any target audience will be interested in this concept of ‘Green’s Law of Social Inertia’ .Yet then again, isn’t that ‘Green’s Law’ at work?
Author’s Details
Andy Green is a leading expert in brand storytelling, creative capacity building in communities or teams, and PR strategy.

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The Author

Andy Green

Andy Green is a leading expert in brand storytelling, creative capacity building in communities or teams, and PR strategy.

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