How to escape thought inertia

Jane Elliott PhD
3 min readNov 10, 2020

When a negative thought is ingrained enough, our brains stop even noticing counter-evidence. But it doesn’t have to stay that way.

Most of us assume that our brains easily and routinely change their thoughts to accommodate new information and perceptions. Yet decades of studies have shown that brains do they opposite: they shape any incoming information to fit the thoughts we already have.

This happens because of what I call thought inertia. Building new neural pathways is energy intensive, so our brains only do it as a last resort. Until that point, they just interpret any the data in a way that matches existing, well-established thoughts.

It is difficult to over-estimate the power of thought inertia. It governs so much of how we experience the world.

Here’s the example that finally made it click for me.

I’d been struggling with feeling undervalued in a working relationship. Then, out of the blue, I got a gorgeous bouquet of flowers from the person I had felt wasn’t giving me enough credit. The card said, “Thank you for all your hard work and passion for our project.”

Did my brain say, “Oh, hurray, I am actually valued”?

Did I now feel happy about the relationship?

No, and no.

Instead, I felt annoyed. I texted a friend a picture of the card and wrote, “Of course he only sees my ‘hard work’, never my smart ideas or leadership. It’s like I’m his donkey.”

The thought that my colleague didn’t value me had clearly achieved thought inertia. My brain wasn’t going to shift it for anything as paltry as counter-evidence. Instead, it just interpreted the incoming data in a way that supported its existing thought.

My brain turned being sent a spontaneous bouquet of thank-you flowers into proof my contributions weren’t valued.

That’s what thought inertia will do to you if you’re not paying attention.

This example is especially relevant because our brains also have a negativity bias. That means that thought inertia will mostly be working in favour of you holding onto thoughts that make your life and the world seem worse.

Jane Elliott PhD

Coach | Professor | Writer | Swear-er.