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Problem-Solving and Other Antidotes for Psychological Inertia

Problem-Solving and Other Antidotes for Psychological Inertia

| On 03, Jan 1999

James Kowalick, President
Renaissance Leadership Institute and TRIZ University (
(530) 692-1944 ~ E-mail:

When there is a “difficult” problem to solve, the problem is difficult just because there is usually some barrier that prevents the problem-solver from moving towards the solution. Most barriers are psychological in their nature – therefore Altshuller appropriately referred to the complete set of barriers to problem-solving as “psychological inertia.”

There are different forms of psychological inertia. One or more of these forms may be present in a typical, complex problem situation. Some forms have been discussed in several TRIZ-Journal articles by the author – others have been disclosed in a paper by Zlotin. To date the author has assembled a list of more than 44 separate forms of psychological inertia. And there are even more than 44! In certain earlier Russian books on psychology -prior to 1946 – psychological inertia went under the name of “formatory thinking.” The author does not know if Genrich Altshuller was aware of this previous work – neither Altshuller nor any of the twenty-one USSR-published TRIZ books written by
other authors, and reviewed by the author, cites these previous references to “formatory thinking.”

Formatory thinking is “in-pattern” thinking – thinking according to one’s own habits and programming. Each person’s programming and habits are different from those of other persons. That is why a particular type of problem (containing one particular form of psychological inertia) will appear to be easy to solve for one person, and yet more difficult to solve for another. Yet, some forms of psychological inertia may be cultural -related to the type of society or to the nation one lives in, or grew up under.

Psychological inertia (formatory thinking) takes the form of unconscious thoughts that may or may not become verbalized. Faced with a problem, a problem-solver’s internal, programmed response may be “Oh, but you can’t do that, because that’s not the way it’s done!” This is just one form of psychological inertia: THE WAY THAT EVERYONE ELSE DOES IT, IS THE WAY THAT IT HAS TO BE DONE! The author occasionally experiences reactions like this from others in the TRIZ community, when he uses “Triads” to rapidly solve problems (sometimes in place of S-Fields).

Some other examples of internal, programmed responses that represent other forms of psychological inertia:

“THIS PROBLEM INVOLVES MOTION ALONG A LINE.” Here, the psychological inertia is so strong, that the problem-solver does not even consider “going out of the dimension” to solve the problem – although the solution may simply consist of rotation, or, moving in a direction perpendicular to a line of action.

“ZERO, OR 100 TIMES, IS NOT ACCEPTABLE.” It is often enough the case that the “time operator” is not employed by problem-solvers, because they are trapped in the psychological inertia of “not thinking excessively, or in the directions of extremes.” Therefore, when someone states that tin cans are tied with a long piece of string to the rear of a car, and asks “At what speed will the tin cans cease to make a rattling noise because of their interaction with the road surface?”, it is easy to
miss the simple fact that “Zero” is one solution to this problem. Enough examples! What can be done to overcome the disastrous effects of psychological inertia?
How can we, as problem-solvers and engineering designers, escape from it, so that we can CONSCIOUSLY proceed along the path to high-level design solutions?

Here are just a few answers to this all-important question.

1. Practice, practice, practice! The more problems, puzzles, brain-teasers, and case-studies we work with, the better we will become at problem-solving, and the more forms of psychological inertia we will “shed” from our personal programming.
Then, when we encounter new (real) problems that contain some of these forms of psychological inertia, they will be “old friends” rather than enemies – because they can no longer “trick” us into being comfortable with ordinary design solutions.

2. Study – in great depth – the solution approaches that others have published on difficult problems or brain-teasers. Ask yourself the question: what was it about this problem or brain-teaser that gave the appearance of an (impossible) barrier? What form or forms of psychological inertia are represented here? Describe each form in great detail, so that this becomes a true learning experience. Detailed forms of psychological inertia are often very subtle!

3. Practice living in an “out of pattern” way. If you routinely – and intentionally – learn to think and act “not according to habit,” then you will also be able to think differently about very complex problems or design challenges. What are examples of living “out of pattern?” Some can be very simple, like the following:
A) Drive to work a different way than the way you normally (i.e., by habit) go;
B) while walking inside or outside of a building, take another route, even if it is longer than your usual route;
C) If you dine “American style” (one-handed, with a fork in the right hand), try dining “European style” (fork in left hand, knife in right), or if you are already dining European style, do the opposite for a while;
D) observe the words you use regularly, and set an aim to avoid using one or more “habitual” words (like “the,” or “it” or “very”);
E) call someone by another name – for example, it could be an “endearing” name like “dear,” etc. F) if you don’t attend opera or classic plays, attend several over a relatively short period of time. There are many other exercises that you can invent for yourself. If you choose good exercises, you will undoubtedly fail at first, but please stay with them – they are well worth the effort, for you will become more creative simply by being more out-of-pattern with your life. Out-of-pattern living attracts out-of-pattern thinking!

A few observations about psychological inertia: the author has found that it is very difficult to conquer psychological inertia on one’s own. It is better if you practice it with a group of other like-minded persons. It’s still better if you work under the tutelage of someone who has conquered it to a large degree. An alternative is to enroll in a program having the goal to assist problem-solvers in working against psychological inertia.

The author can state that his personal efforts – in consciously working against the influence of psychological inertia – are a major factor in his ability to work together with professionals in any product field or technology, with the goal of addressing and solving some of the most difficult technical problems every solved in various product areas and technology areas.

A brief article as this cannot end without a good puzzle! The following puzzle is of “moderate” difficulty. Within this puzzle description itself are buried different forms of psychological inertia – try to figure out what they are, and state them in writing. Also, for practice, please begin by using the IDEAL FINAL RESULT to assist you in getting to a solution – there are several possible avenues of solution. Here’s the problem:


Twelve otherwise identical-appearing marbles, appropriately stamped and identified with numbers from one to twelve, all have precisely the same weight – except for one marble in the group, which is either very slightly heavier or very slightly lighter than the others.
A balance scale is available for comparing weights of individual marbles, or for comparing weights of groups of marbles. The balance scale is capable of indicating the very slight difference in weight referred to above. You are a lone investigator who does not know which marble is different from the rest, and you can receive no help or assistance from any other person.

Problem 1. In four weighings, correctly – and with absolute certainty – identify which marble is different from the rest, and whether it is very slightly heavier or very slightly lighter than the others. Explain how your solution procedure will always work.

Note: The use of additional apparatus, instrumentation or objects – other than the balance scale – is not permitted.

Problem 2. Solve the same problem, but in just three weighings!

Problem 3. Is it possible to correctly identify the marble that is different from the rest, and to correctly identify whether that marble is very slightly heavier or very slightly lighter than the others, with only two weighings? Explain. Note: The use of additional apparatus, instrumentation or objects – other than the balance scale – is not permitted.

Problem 4. Is it possible to correctly identify the marble that is different from the rest, and to correctly identify whether that marble is very slightly heavier or very slightly lighter than the others, with only one weighing? Explain. Note: The use of additional apparatus, instrumentation or objects – other than the balance scale – is not permitted.

A perfect score is 100 points. Achieving a solution to problem 1 – with the required explanation – is worth 10 points. Correctly solving problem 2 – with the required explanation of a procedure that will always work – is worth 20 points. Correctly answering the question posed in problem 3 – with the required explanation – is worth 30 points.
Correctly answering the question posed in problem 4 – with the required explanation – is worth 40 points.


Three enlightenment-seeking monks from a TRIZ monastery were hiking up the Yellow Mountain in China, when they discovered an extraordinarily beautiful cottage. They were invited inside by the keeper of the door. Once inside, they were warmly greeted by a True Master, who asked them to join him for dinner. They accepted, sitting down to a hearty, wonderful dinner with plum wine – after which they and the True Master all fell into a deep, restful slumber.

While they were sleeping, mischievous servants painted the word “idiot” on the travelers’ foreheads – in such a way that it would be impossible for any monk to know, without looking in a mirror, that anything was written on his own forehead. When they woke up and saw what was written on the foreheads of their companions, they simultaneously broke into a fit of uncontrollable laughter. The True Master did not laugh at all. Very quickly, the senior monk, who was also the closest to enlightenment, realized that his own forehead was also embellished with the “idiot” word – and he
stopped laughing instantly.

Questions: 1. How could the senior monk know that the word was undoubtedly on his own forehead? 2. What was the process of thinking that led him to realize the truth about himself? 3. Why didn’t the True Master laugh at all? 4. If the servants had also painted the word “Idiot” on the True Master’s forehead, how would this have changed the problem? 5. (optional) Why do you suppose the TRIZ-monks wanted to become “enlightened?”