Overcoming “Inaction Inertia” to Support Open-Science

What our "inaction inertia" replication teaches about engaging in open-science.

Posted Jun 07, 2020

[This post was written by Jieying Chen from the University of Manitoba, Canada, who is the lead author of a replication article of the classic "Inaction Inertia" discussed in this post. Gilad Feldman is the corresponding author on this replication article, and edited this post for Psychology Today.]

Imagine the following scenario: You see a television advertisement by a local dealer for a car and you are interested in buying. The advertisement promotes a limited-time $500 factory rebate on the car, providing it is purchased this week. However, you had seen this advertisement once before. Back then, the car was offered with a larger rebate value, $2,500, for a limited time. Although you were interested in the deal at that time, you had missed the deadline.

How likely are you to buy the car this week?

In a preregistered replication of the classic "inaction inertia" effect, we showed the scenario above to both US and Hong Kong participants. The experiment involved randomly assigning participants to one of three conditions that varied the situation slightly. The scenario above was the condition of a "large missed opportunity."

Condition "small missed opportunity": Missed opportunity of a $750 discount.

Condition "no missed opportunity": No missed opportunity.

The findings were that compared to these two conditions of small and no missed opportunity, participants in the large missed opportunity were less likely to buy the car, despite the attractive promotion of a $500 discount.

According to neoclassical economics views, if we are "rational" then a $500 off is a valuable discount for buying a car that you are interested in. Problem is, that $500 just isn't as good as the first missed deal of a $2,500 discount, and so that affects the current decision.

These findings seem to suggest that people are not always rational –despite the offered savings in the second deal, people tended to pass on an attractive deal just because they've previously passed on a better deal. The larger the missed opportunity and the difference from the current opportunity, the less inclined we are to take the opportunity. 

This tendency to pass on a positive value opportunity because of previously foregoing a more attractive initial opportunity has been coined the "inaction inertia" effect.

"Inaction inertia": Tykocinski, Pittman, and Tuttle (1995)

In our everyday lives, we encounter many opportunities. We act on some, we choose not to on others. Some opportunities may repeat at another time (e.g., the laundry detergent at Walmart is on sale for $3.99 again), yet some may never return.

Tykocinski and colleagues (1995) tested inaction inertia effect in four purchasing scenarios: car, ski vacation, frequent flyer program, and fitness center subscription. In their article, the inaction inertia effect was supported across all four scenarios, and they've shown that participants in the "large missed opportunity" condition were less likely to act on the second opportunity than participants in the other two conditions of small and no missed opportunity.

Revisiting "inaction inertia": Three Preregistered Replication Studies

Using three samples from the United States (Amazon Mechanical Turk workers, n = 309, n = 1203) and Hong Kong (undergraduate students, n = 43), we conducted preregistered replications of the first two experiments in Tykocinski et al. (1995). We found support for the "Inaction Inertia" effect in the car and ski resort scenarios. However, we found little support for the effect in the frequent flyer scenario, and mixed support in the fitness center scenario. We discuss possible reasons for that in our paper, and believe that these are valuable insights for our understanding of the inaction inertia effect, for those conducting research on this effect, and for those trying to implement this research in practice.

Replications research process

We so far covered the original article's main findings and our preregistered replication findings. But, why do a replication? what was the process of doing a replication?

Why inaction inertia?

I decided to take this project because I wanted to better understand inaction inertia and examine whether and under what circumstances the effect holds. The effect seemed plausible, and I could easily relate and imagine myself being trapped in inaction inertia, possibly missing out on many valuable opportunities in my personal life and career. But I wanted to test this and see this empirically. I also felt that a better understanding of the inaction inertia effect may be useful for many other people as well. 

How difficult was it to conduct a replication project?

I mainly struggled with two things.

My first struggle was to overcome my resistance to doing replications, still very uncommon in my field (management / organizational psychology). Still, I was determined to try and learn replications. Ever since I entered academia, I was trained to focus on novel research questions that offer an important theoretical contribution, and to build a coherent story based on the data and the findings. Replications seemed unimportant, easy to conduct, not at all new, and lacking in contribution. The common view was that replicators do not create, innovate, or advance our understanding. I had this impression before I started this project, and I corresponded several times with my coauthor (Gilad) to discuss my concerns regarding the value of replications during the early stages of this project. Those were tough but fruitful discussions, and I learned from those.

My evolving understanding is that replication studies aim to substantiate science and to address a literature with severe bias favoring novelty and finding "something" over careful re-examination and the possibility of null findings (i.e., not finding an effect). Replications, the repetition of studies to determine whether we get the same results, are crucial for ensuring reliable trustworthy science, and therefore play an important role in addressing the ongoing replication/reproducibility crisis.

While the original study provided important insights into human cognition, judgment, and decision-making, close/exact replications were necessary for establishing the phenomenon and for building a solid foundation for further theory development. 

I still do other novel research, yet I now see doing replication work as an important shared responsibility of everyone in this field. We need replication studies along-side novel studies as an integral process in doing science.

My second struggle was to overcome my resistance to being fully transparent. We ideally want science to be open and transparent, yet that is far easier said than done. By sharing all data and revealing all methods, process, and code, we run the risk of exposing our mistakes and weaknesses. In fact, one of the reviewers who was very responsible checked all of our data and analyses. S/he then urged us to clarify commands we used for the mini meta-analysis. The way that we coped with this challenge is to check things again and again. All analyses and results were independently validated at least three times: by the student coauthors, by the first author, and by the correspondence author. Still, there is always the possibility of errors we did not catch, and this is where full transparency and the involvement of the academic community in openly peer reviewing all research becomes important.

Bottom line: Being transparent forces us to be extra careful in our analyses and reporting, but no one is perfect and transparency makes it easier for the academic community to help us improve and catch possible errors.

Implications of inaction inertia effect for us as researchers

First, it is never too late to take action. Don't let missed opportunities and the past trap you into foregoing an important opportunity. Lost opportunities are in the past, and it is more important to look towards the future and act on the current valuable opportunities.

Second, we—the research community—have forgone many good opportunities to adapt our practices and advance open science to establish reliable trustworthy science. But it’s never too late to act on the current opportunity to engage in open science, do more replication studies, join collaborative initiatives, and incorporate the spirit of transparency and openness in all research projects that we do.

Take action!


Chen, J., Hui, L. S., Yu, T., Feldman, G., Zeng, S. V., Ching, T. L., ... & Cheng, B. L. (2020).  Foregone opportunities and choosing not to act: Replications of Inaction Inertia effect. Social Psychological and Personality Science. Retreived June 2020 from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/332550110_Foregone_opportunities_and_choosing_not_to_act_Replications_of_Inaction_Inertia_effect

Tykocinski, O. E., Pittman, T. S., & Tuttle, E. E. (1995). Inaction inertia: Foregoing future benefits as a result of an initial failure to act. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 793-803. Retrieved June 2020 from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Thane_Pittman/publication/247434714_Inaction_Inertia_Foregoing_Future_Benefits_as_a_Result_of_an_Initial_Failure_to_Act/links/0c96052f90acd52b97000000.pdf