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Problem-Solving and Other Antidotes for Psychological Inertia

Problem-Solving and Other Antidotes for Psychological Inertia

Editor | On 03, Jan 1999

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

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?”

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The Basic Idea

Theory, meet practice.

TDL is an applied research consultancy. In our work, we leverage the insights of diverse fields—from psychology and economics to machine learning and behavioral data science—to sculpt targeted solutions to nuanced problems.

If you took a physics class in high school, you may remember learning about inertia, an object’s tendency to resist change in motion. 1 If the object is resting, it tends to stay at rest. If the object is moving, it will stay at its pace unless interrupted by an external force. Only with external resistance will the state of the object change.

Humans also experience inertia. 2 We prefer to keep behaving as we already are; we stick with the default option unless we are specifically motivated to change it. Inertia also applies to our beliefs; we tend to resist changes in our ways of thinking. After all, relying on predetermined mental models appears an efficient method for managing behaviors and decisions. 3 However, there is danger in overreliance on these defaults.

Before exploring inertia, there is an important distinction to be made between it and belief perseverance. Belief perseverance, also known as conceptual conservatism, is the tendency to maintain a belief despite being confronted with explicitly contradictory information. 4 5 Belief perseverance relies on justifying invalidated information, and is thus the perseverance of the belief itself, while inertia is the perseverance of how one interprets information. 2

Silence is the language of inertia. – Margaret Heffernan, business management expert and author of Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril

In the 1960s, social psychologist William J. McGuire noticed a resurgence in suggestions that people tend to maintain logical consistency between their cognitions and behaviors. 2 As a result, the idea of cognitive inertia was influenced by two existing psychological theories:

  • Balance theory , a theory of attitude changes by Fritz Heider. 6 This theory was based on the idea that there must be a balance between interpersonal relationships, such that all parties are harmonious in their thoughts, emotions, and social relationships. People are motivated to stay away from imbalance structures, so newly formed attitudes will typically strive to reduce tension.
  • Cognitive dissonance, a theory proposed by Leon Festinger. 7 This theory proposed that humans strive for internal psychological consistency. Cognitive dissonance results in feeling uncomfortable, motivating people to reduce said dissonance. This reduction can be done by rejecting, avoiding, or changing perceptions of contradictory information.

McGuire assumed that people can hold a certain amount of cognitive inertia, such that we initially resist changing how we process information when presented with new and conflicting information. 2 To develop his work on cognitive inconsistencies and inertia, McGuidre conducted a study with 120 high school and college students.

Participants were presented with a variety of topics and asked how probable they thought each of these topics were. 2 One week later, the participants were called back to read information related to the topics they had previously predicted. The participants were immediately asked again how probable they thought each of these topics were, and were further asked one week after they had been presented with the new information.

McGuire predicted that participants would be motivated to shift their probability ratings to be more consistent with the facts that they were presented, which were inconsistent with their initial probability ratings of the topics. 2 However, McGuire was surprised to find that probability ratings did not immediately change to be consistent with the information presented. Rather, the shift toward consistency between original ratings and the factual information became stronger as time passed, which McGuire called a “continued seepage of change.”

Considering the temporal effects, McGuire termed this phenomenon “cognitive inertia”: the lack of immediate change was the result of participants’ existing thought processes and mental models persisting. 2 This persistence interfered with participants’ abilities to properly consider the new information and alter their initial responses.

William J. McGuire

American social psychologist who studied philosophy and psychology after serving in World War II. 8 Considered to be the “father of social cognition,” McGuire is most known for his work on persuasion and social influence, although he also contributed to the beginnings of cognitive inertia. McGuire co-founded the Society for Experimental Social Psychology and was president of the Personality and Social Psychology division of the American Psychological Association.


Since the study of inertia in the 1960s, it has been applied to fields including business management, 9 10 11 12 13 criminal activity, 14 health, 17 and decision making and problem solving, 15 16 18 to name a few. It has been popularized in books like Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at our Peril, written in 2011 by business management expert, Margaret Heffernan. 19 Named one of the most important business books of the decade by the Financial Times, Heffernan explores psychological research related to ignorance and inertia. 20

Inertia is commonly referenced in the world of business management. 9 10 Research highlights how important it is for managers to pay attention to inertia in order to avoid missed opportunities or endangering their company’s competitive advantage. 11 For example, Greyhound was stuck in viewing itself as a bus company, preventing it from capitalizing on its chance to be a dominant player in the world of parcel transport. As for company endangerment, General Mills continued to operate mills long after they no longer held strategic importance. Due to the prevalence in business strategy, research has shifted to helping businesses overcome inertia, such as having managers consult with employees who can provide alternative perspectives. 12 13

Interesting work has been done on psychological inertia as it pertains to crime continuity, with past criminality often being the best predictor of future criminality. 14   Walters’ theory of inertia holds that crime continuity is due to six cognitive variables, all of which are slow to change and thus vulnerable to inertia:

Criminal thinking, including antisocial attitudes and irrational thought patterns;

Believing that engaging in criminal activity will have specific positive outcomes;

Attribution biases, such as the tendency to view the world as hostile and other people as malicious;

Low self-efficacy, resulting in low confidence that one will be able to avoid criminal activity in the future;

Focusing on short term goals opposed to long term goals; and,

Certain values, including immediate gratification and the pursuit of self-indulgent pleasure.

Inertia has also been found to play a role in decision making, especially when it comes to risky decisions. 15 Research has shown that humans have a significant tendency to repeat previous choices with monetary feedback, due to our need to be consistent. Additionally, the effects of inertia on decision making are stronger in voluntary choices than mandatory choices. Knowledge inertia has emerged as a distinct type of inertia, referring to people’s tendencies to problem solve with old, redundant knowledge without paying attention to new experiences. 16 The idea of knowledge inertia relates back to business management, as problem strategies that acknowledge new information are important for maintaining a competitive edge. 13

Health is another vital field in which inertia is a topic of discussion. Emotional inertia, the tendency for one’s affective states to be resistant to change, is one of two types of psychological inflexibility that characterizes depression. 17 Emotional inertia is related to rumination - the other type of inflexibility that characterizes depression - which refers to repetitively focusing on the causes and consequences of depressive symptoms. Aside from its role in health diagnoses, inertia can also be used to explain reactions to health concerns. 18

The Spanish flu, for example, was a deadly pandemic. 18 Yet, there was a universal lack of preparation or panic in response to the pandemic, despite extensive coverage of the flu’s progress. Researchers believe this was due to inertia: people had a widespread understanding of the flu as a seasonal infection that typically did not kill or severely harm people. This premeditated view of the flu was powerful enough to override any messages of the dangers of the Spanish flu, blinding people to its threat and thus resulting in lack of preparation for its spread.


Some researchers have presented adjustments and alternative theories to cognitive inertia, which addresses how people maintain their ways of interpreting information and thinking about an issue. 21 These researchers hold that the cognitive emphasis should be replaced with a more holistic approach, accounting for the existing attitudes, emotions, and motivations that strengthen existing mental models.

In response, the theory of motivated reasoning has been presented as an alternative model to consider the phenomena associated with inertia. 21 This theory holds that people are cognitively and emotionally biased to justify an existing thought or behavior. Motivated reasoning focuses on people’s drives to view themselves in a positive light: it suggests that persistence in how people interpret incoming information is based on motivations to be correct, rather than the actual cognitive perspective itself. 22

Similar to the arguments for a more holistic approach to inertia, socio-cognitive inflexibility views inertia as more than just an inability to alter one’s way of interpreting information. 23 Compared to cognitive inertia, socio-cognitive inertia emphasizes the inability to adapt to environmental changes, including institutional changes. The emphasis on social influences is paramount in this discussion: when considering the persistence of the nuclear family, for example, factors such as media portrayals and gender wage differences must be considered. 24

Customer satisfaction and loyalty

Ensuring the commitment of existing customers is crucial for success in business. 25 In order to do so, companies will ask their customers to complete online satisfaction surveys, supported by the assumption that consumers are motivated to evaluate the products or services during the consumption phase. After all, customer satisfaction is linked to customer loyalty.

However, Anna Mattila was curious as to whether consumers consciously process these mundane consumption experiences, which would have implications for the utility of their satisfaction ratings. 25 According to the existing literature on social cognition, people do not always evaluate stimuli. Whether someone formulates a judgment online as they acquire information, or whether they pull judgments from their memory as needed, these judgments are influenced by their information processing goals.

The distinction between online and memory based judgments matters. Most satisfaction surveys are delivered remotely, yet consumers’ everyday judgments tend to be memory based. 25 Mattila found that unless satisfaction surveys were administered immediately after their purchase, consumer responses were often based on their existing opinions of a company, rather than the actual quality of their recent experience. Unless the product or service was significantly negative or positive, existing inertia was not suppressed.

Mattila’s findings suggest that satisfaction surveys can lack the necessary information for businesses to assess their services and products, especially when they hope to use such data to improve their competitive edge. 25 If consumers’ experiences cannot suppress their inertia, then the utility of satisfaction responses falls. Thus, businesses who hope to rely on satisfaction data must collect this information at the point of service delivery. Businesses could also consider repeatedly measuring customer satisfaction over time, to account for the effects of inertia.

Digital transformation

As digital technologies continue to change the way traditional companies interact in established markets, many digital transformation projects have failed because of companies’ inability to adapt. 26 This inertia, in the form of socio-cognitive inertia, is an important factor inhibiting organizational transformation. In fact, organizational transformations have a success rate of 30%. As a result, researchers have explored ways that organizations can overcome their socio-cognitive inertia.

Decentralized organizations - which rely on teamwork at multiple levels of the business - can be successful when combined with high participation. 26 The inclusion of different types of workers, such as business and IT professionals, can help combat inertia from one level of the business. Participation is an important success factor in digital transformation, both for general success and for reducing employee resistance. As a result, companies are encouraged to include employees in the change process to overcome socio-cognitive inertia and to facilitate digital transformation.

Related TDL Content

Status quo bias

Inertia refers to humans’ inability to alter the ways they process information, sticking with default mental models. As a result, inertia has also been linked to the status quo bias, which describes our resistance to change. Both inertia and the status quo bias include a reliance on defaults, although inertia focuses on inhibiting change while the status quo bias focuses on general avoidance of change. If you’re interested in learning more, take a look at this piece!

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  • Hodgkinson, G. P. (1997). Cognitive inertia in a turbulent market: The case of UK residential estate agents. Journal of Management Studies, 34 (6) ,926-945.
  • Guenther, C. L., & Alicke, N. D. (2008). Self-enhancement and belief perseverance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44 (3), 706-712.
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  • Habersang, S., Küberling, J., Reihlen, M., & Seckler, C. (2019). A process perspective on organizational failure: A qualitative meta-analysis. Journal of Management Studies, 56 (1), 19-56.
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  • Huang, H., Lai, M., Lin, L., & Chen, C. (2012). Overcoming organizational inertia to strengthen business model innovation. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 26 (6), 977-1002.
  • Carrington, D. J., Combe, I. A., & Mumford, M. D. (2019). Cognitive shifts within leader and follower teams: Where consensus develops in mental models during an organizational crisis. The Leadership Quarterly, 30 (3), 335-350.
  • Walter, G. D. (2016). Proactive and reactive criminal thinking, psychological inertia, and the crime continuity conundrum. Journal of Criminal Justice, 46 , 45-51.
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  • Liao, S. (2002). Problem solving and knowledge inertia. Expert Systems with Applications, 22 (1), 21-31.
  • Koval, P., Kuppens, P., Allen, N. B., & Sheeber, L. (2012). Getting stuck in depression: The roles of rumination and emotional inertia. Cognition and Emotion, 26 (8), 1412-1427.
  • Dicke, T. (2015). Waiting for the flu: Cognitive inertia and the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918-19. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 70 (2), 195-217.
  • About Margaret. (2021). Margaret Heffernan.
  • Heffernan, M. (2011). Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril. Simon & Schuster.
  • Kunda, Z. (1990). The case for motivated reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 108 (3), 480-498.
  • Stanley, M. L., Henne, P., Yang, B. W., & De Brigard, F. (2020). Resistance to position change, motivated reasoning, and polarization. Political Behavior, 42 (1), 891-913.
  • Stein, J. (1997). How institutions learn: A socio-cognitive perspective. Journal of Economic Issues, 31 (3), 729-740.
  • Uhlmann, A. J. (2005). The dynamics of stasis: Historical inertia in the evolution of the Australian family. The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 16 (1), 31-46.
  • Mattila, A. S. (2003). The impact of cognitive inertia on postconsumption evaluation processes. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 31 (3), 287-299.
  • Ertl, J., Soto Setzke, D., Böhm, M., & Krcmar, H. (2020). The role of dynamic capabilities in overcoming socio-cognitive inertia during digital transformation - A configurational perspective. In 15th International Conference on Wirtschaftsinformatik.

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The Roots of Cognitive Inertia: An Introduction to Institutional Changes

  • First Online: 09 February 2024

Cite this chapter

psychological inertia problem solving

  • Ali Hussein Samadi   ORCID: 3 ,
  • Mojtaba Panahi 3 &
  • Alireza Raanaei 3  

Part of the book series: Contributions to Economics ((CE))

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In this chapter, we analyze the concept of cognitive inertia, investigate the roots of its formation, and then examine the role of cognitive inertia in creating institutional changes. Cognitive inertia means the tendency to perpetuate beliefs after they are formed. The findings of this chapter show that cognitive biases play an effective role in the emergence of cognitive inertia. Among the most important identified biases that have a greater impact on the formation and escalation of cognitive inertia, this chapter identifies the following: status-quo bias , confirmation bias , commitment escalation bias , belief bias , conservatism bias , and self-attribution bias .

Also, the results of this chapter show that one of the most important reasons for not forming institutional changes in a society can be attributed to the problem of cognitive inertia. Institutional economist, Douglas North argues that there is a close relationship between mental models, belief systems, and institutions. He believes that institutions are derived from belief systems. He also believes that the difference between rich and poor countries comes from the difference in their beliefs. Therefore, the lack of change in the belief system can lead to the lack of institutional changes.

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To read more about the concept of inertia, refer to Chapter “ Inertia: Resistance and Endurance ” of this book.

To read more about the concept of institutional inertia, and its causes refer to Chapter “ An Introduction to Institutional Inertia: Concepts, Types and Causes ” of this book.

The effect of cognitive inertia on institutional inertia is explained in Part III of Chapter “ Overview of Institutional–Organizational Inertia Nexus ” of this book.

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Samadi, A.H., Panahi, M., Raanaei, A. (2024). The Roots of Cognitive Inertia: An Introduction to Institutional Changes. In: Faghih, N., Samadi, A.H. (eds) Institutional Inertia. Contributions to Economics. Springer, Cham.

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Inventive Problem Solving


Hi, everyone!! Today i would like to share about Psychological Inertia (PI).


Psychological Inertia deals with resistance to change due to human programming.

In other word, it creates barriers to innovative brainstorming during problem solving.

Besides, PI is resulted from what a person has learnt before in the form of rules and regulations. Furthermore, the knowledge or experience would creates boundaries and restrictions in a person’s mind.


Using TRIZ procedures.

The TRIZ procedures can be used methodically to eliminate or reduce the effects that PI has on one’s personal creativity.


CASE 1: Connect the dots with no more than 4 straight lines without lifting your hand from the paper.

psychological inertia problem solving

Most of the people (include myself) cannot solve this problems because we implicitly impose constraints that have not come with the problem !!

Hence, to solve the problem, we need to think outside the boxes.

psychological inertia problem solving

CASE 2: Connect the vase with no more than 2 straight lines.

psychological inertia problem solving

It is impossible to connect all of the vase using 2 lines only. To solve this problem, we can MOVE THE VASES, because it does not mention the position for the vase must keep in the same positions.

psychological inertia problem solving

That is all for my sharing… Don’t forgot to like this blog if you like this post.

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Zoe Weil M.A., M.T.S

Ethics and Morality

Challenging our innate instincts can reduce polarization, cultivating a "solutionary instinct" can build bridges for collaboration..

Updated April 29, 2024 | Reviewed by Monica Vilhauer

  • Certain instincts perpetuate polarization. Identifying them helps us to resist them.
  • We must challenge Gap, Negativity, Generalization, Single Perspective, and Blame Instincts to solve problems.
  • Cultivating a Solutionary Instinct will help us resist those instincts that stymie positive change.

The late Hans Rosling, author of Factfulness , describes ten instincts that steer us away from objectively evaluating our societies and our systems. Some of these instincts may have evolved to protect us and the groups with which we identify, and yet they can also undermine our ability to engage in meaningful problem-solving with others. In these polarized times, it’s worth challenging these instincts so that we can collaborate to solve the problems we face instead of constantly arguing about them.

Of the ten instincts Rosling identifies, five are particularly insidious when it comes to inhibiting bridge-building for successful problem-solving:

1. The Gap Instinct

This instinct refers to our propensity to divide things into two distinct and often conflicting groups with an imagined gap between them: us versus them. Either/or thinking typically ensues, and once we have created this binary mindset, we tend to lose a “we” perspective. Binary thinking often results in the belief that one side of the debate is “good,” and the other side is “bad,” with little room for considering a variety of perspectives. Such thinking can then become a reinforcing feedback loop as we seek to continually bolster our side, which in turn further discourages us from collaborating across divides to solve problems.

2. The Negativity Instinct

This instinct describes our tendency to notice the bad more than the good. The result is that we often believe that most things are getting worse even if much has improved. In my own lifetime, I’ve witnessed advances in so many arenas, from human rights to a significant reduction in poverty and improvements in healthcare to a widespread belief that ecosystems should be protected and animals shouldn’t be mistreated. Noticing what is good is not a cause for complacency; rather it’s an acknowledgment that things can be bad and better at the same time, and if they can be better, they can be better still. Such a recognition provides a dose of evidence-based optimism to spur efforts to collaborate and build a truly just, humane, and sustainable future for everyone.

3. The Generalization Instinct

This instinct refers to our tendency to group together things, people, or countries regardless of their differences. If you find yourself talking about a group (whether political, ideological, national, religious, ethnic, geographical, or based on class or profession) with sweeping generalities, it is likely because of this instinct. The Generalization Instinct reinforces stereotypes and stymies bridge-building by discouraging us from seeking a range of perspectives and thereby gaining more nuanced understanding. Without such understanding, finding solutions to problems that a large majority can agree upon becomes more difficult.

4. The Single Perspective Instinct

This instinct describes our tendency to focus on a single cause or perspective when it comes to understanding problems in the world. This instinct is reinforced when we consume only the media and listen only to information from groups and individuals that support our existing belief systems. With only one perspective to inform our thinking, we limit our capacity to stay open to different ideas as well as diminish our own creativity and desire to collaborate across divides and reduce polarization. The more we resist the single perspective instinct and increase our exposure to a range of perspectives, the greater the possibilities for cooperation .

5. The Blame Instinct

This instinct refers to our tendency to find a clear, simple reason why something bad has happened. Succumbing to this instinct may be psychologically soothing and deflect discomfort, but it keeps us divided and may actually perpetuate “bad things” if we double down on simplistic causes that prevent complex systems thinking – a necessary component of solving problems in ways that do the most good and least harm for everyone including other species and the environment . The Blame Instinct can also keep us from recognizing our own complicity in problems as well as our own agency in developing solutions.

Cultivating a "Solutionary Instinct"

Recognizing these innate instincts within ourselves is key to resisting them and developing what I call a "solutionary instinct" that enables us to perceive problems as solvable and spurs us to solve them. As we cultivate a solutionary instinct we are more likely to:

• avoid either/or thinking and focus on solutionary thinking, which includes critical, systems, strategic, and creative thinking

• seek out multiple perspectives from a range of stakeholders to build bridges and collaborate effectively

Developing a solutionary instinct takes time, effort, and a lot of practice, but the benefits of cultivating this instinct are enormous. Not only do we increase the likelihood of reducing conflicts and actually solving the problems we care about, we also improve our own lives as we build meaningful relationships, form supportive communities, and witness the positive impacts of our efforts.

(This post has been adapted from Zoe Weil’s upcoming book, The Solutionary Way: Transform Your Life, Your Community, and the World for the Better , coming out June 25, 2024.)

See for more information about Factfulness .

Davies, S.T. Factfulness Summary of the ten instincts.

Zoe Weil M.A., M.T.S

Zoe Weil, M.A., M.T.S. , is the co-founder and president of the Institute for Humane Education and the author of seven books.

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The Crackdown on Student Protesters

Columbia university is at the center of a growing showdown over the war in gaza and the limits of free speech..

This transcript was created using speech recognition software. While it has been reviewed by human transcribers, it may contain errors. Please review the episode audio before quoting from this transcript and email [email protected] with any questions.


Well, you can hear the helicopter circling. This is Asthaa Chaturvedi. I’m a producer with “The Daily.” Just walked out of the 116 Street Station. It’s the main station for Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus. And it’s day seven of the Gaza solidarity encampment, where a hundred students were arrested last Thursday.

So on one side of Broadway, you see camera crews. You see NYPD officers all lined up. There’s barricades, steel barricades, caution tape. This is normally a completely open campus. And I’m able to — all members of the public, you’re able to walk through.


Looks like international media is here.

Have your IDs out. Have your IDs out.

Students lining up to swipe in to get access to the University. ID required for entry.

Swipe your ID, please.

Hi, how are you, officer? We’re journalists with “The New York Times.”

You’re not going to get in, all right? I’m sorry.

Hi. Can I help please?

Yeah, it’s total lockdown here at Columbia.

Please have your IDs out ready to swipe.

From “The New York Times,” I’m Michael Barbaro. This is “The Daily.” Today, the story of how Columbia University has become the epicenter of a growing showdown between student protesters, college administrators, and Congress over the war in Gaza and the limits of free speech. I spoke with my colleague, Nick Fandos.


It’s Thursday, April 25.

Nick, if we rewind the clock a few months, we end up at a moment where students at several of the country’s best known universities are protesting Israel’s response to the October 7 attacks, its approach to a war in Gaza. At times, those protests are happening peacefully, at times with rhetoric that is inflammatory. And the result is that the leaders of those universities land before Congress. But the president of Columbia University, which is the subject we’re going to be talking about today, is not one of the leaders who shows up for that testimony.

That’s right. So the House Education Committee has been watching all these protests on campus. And the Republican Chairwoman decides, I’m going to open an investigation, look at how these administrations are handling it, because it doesn’t look good from where I sit. And the House last winter invites the leaders of several of these elite schools, Harvard, Penn, MIT, and Columbia, to come and testify in Washington on Capitol Hill before Congress.

Now, the President of Columbia has what turns out to be a very well-timed, pre-planned trip to go overseas and speak at an international climate conference. So Minouche Shafik isn’t going to be there. So instead, the presidents of Harvard, and Penn, and MIT show up. And it turned out to be a disaster for these universities.

They were asked very pointed questions about the kind of speech taking place on their campuses, and they gave really convoluted academic answers back that just baffled the committee. But there was one question that really embodied the kind of disconnect between the Committee — And it wasn’t just Republicans, Republicans and Democrats on the Committee — and these college presidents. And that’s when they were asked a hypothetical.

Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s rules or code of conduct? Yes or no?

If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment.

And two of the presidents, Claudine Gay of Harvard and Elizabeth Magill of the University of Pennsylvania, they’re unwilling to say in this really kind of intense back and forth that this speech would constitute a violation of their rules.

It can be, depending on the context.

What’s the context?

Targeted at an individual. Is it pervasive?

It’s targeted at Jewish students, Jewish individuals. Do you understand your testimony is dehumanizing them?

And it sets off a firestorm.

It does not depend on the context. The answer is yes. And this is why you should resign. These are unacceptable answers across the board.

Members of Congress start calling for their resignations. Alumni are really, really ticked off. Trustees of the University start to wonder, I don’t know that these leaders really have got this under control. And eventually, both of them lose their jobs in a really high profile way.

Right. And as you’ve hinted at, for somewhat peculiar scheduling reasons, Columbia’s President escapes this disaster of a hearing in what has to be regarded as the best timing in the history of the American Academy.

Yeah, exactly. And Columbia is watching all this play out. And I think their first response was relief that she was not in that chair, but also a recognition that, sooner or later, their turn was going to come back around and they were going to have to sit before Congress.

Why were they so certain that they would probably end up before Congress and that this wasn’t a case of completely dodging a bullet?

Well, they remain under investigation by the committee. But also, as the winter wears on, all the same intense protests just continue unabated. So in many ways, Columbia’s like these other campuses. But in some ways, it’s even more intense. This is a university that has both one of the largest Jewish student populations of any of its peers. But it also has a large Arab and Muslim student population, a big Middle Eastern studies program. It has a dual degree program in Tel Aviv.

And it’s a university on top of all that that has a real history of activism dating back to the 1960s. So when students are recruited or choose to come to Columbia, they’re actively opting into a campus that prides itself on being an activist community. It’s in the middle of New York City. It’s a global place. They consider the city and the world, really, like a classroom to Columbia.

In other words, if any campus was going to be a hotbed of protest and debate over this conflict, it was going to be Columbia University.

Exactly. And when this spring rolls around, the stars finally align. And the same congressional committee issues another invitation to Minouche Shafik, Columbia’s President, to come and testify. And this time, she has no excuse to say no.

But presumably, she is well aware of exactly what testifying before this committee entails and is highly prepared.

Columbia knew this moment was coming. They spent months preparing for this hearing. They brought in outside consultants, crisis communicators, experts on anti-Semitism. The weekend before the hearing, she actually travels down to Washington to hole up in a war room, where she starts preparing her testimony with mock questioners and testy exchanges to prep her for this. And she’s very clear on what she wants to try to do.

Where her counterparts had gone before the committee a few months before and looked aloof, she wanted to project humility and competence, to say, I know that there’s an issue on my campus right now with some of these protests veering off into anti-Semitic incidents. But I’m getting that under control. I’m taking steps in good faith to make sure that we restore order to this campus, while allowing people to express themselves freely as well.

So then the day of her actual testimony arrives. And just walk us through how it goes.

The Committee on Education and Workforce will come to order. I note that —

So Wednesday morning rolls around. And President Shafik sits at the witness stand with two of her trustees and the head of Columbia’s new anti-Semitism task force.

Columbia stands guilty of gross negligence at best and at worst has become a platform for those supporting terrorism and violence against the Jewish people.

And right off the bat, they’re put through a pretty humbling litany of some of the worst hits of what’s been happening on campus.

For example, just four days after the harrowing October 7 attack, a former Columbia undergraduate beat an Israeli student with a stick.

The Republican Chairwoman of the Committee, Virginia Foxx, starts reminding her that there was a student who was actually hit with a stick on campus. There was another gathering more recently glorifying Hamas and other terrorist organizations, and the kind of chants that have become an everyday chorus on campus, which many Jewish students see as threatening. But when the questioning starts, President Shafik is ready. One of the first ones she gets is the one that tripped up her colleagues.

Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Columbia’s code of conduct, Mr. Greenwald?

And she answers unequivocally.

Dr. Shafik?

Yes, it does.

And, Professor —

That would be a violation of Columbia’s rules. They would be punished.

As President of Columbia, what is it like when you hear chants like, by any means necessary or Intifada Revolution?

I find those chants incredibly distressing. And I wish profoundly that people would not use them on our campus.

And in some of the most interesting exchanges of the hearing, President Shafik actually opens Columbia’s disciplinary books.

We have already suspended 15 students from Columbia. We have six on disciplinary probation. These are more disciplinary actions that have been taken probably in the last decade at Columbia. And —

She talks about the number of students that have been suspended, but also the number of faculty that she’s had removed from the classroom that are being investigated for comments that either violate some of Columbia’s rules or make students uncomfortable. One case in particular really underscores this.

And that’s of a Middle Eastern studies professor named Joseph Massad. He wrote an essay not long after Hamas invaded Israel and killed 1,200 people, according to the Israeli government, where he described that attack with adjectives like awesome. Now, he said they’ve been misinterpreted, but a lot of people have taken offense to those comments.

Ms. Stefanik, you’re recognized for five minutes.

Thank you, Chairwoman. I want to follow up on my colleague, Rep Walberg’s question regarding Professor Joseph Massad. So let me be clear, President —

And so Representative Elise Stefanik, the same Republican who had tripped up Claudine Gay of Harvard and others in the last hearing, really starts digging in to President Shafik about these things at Columbia.

He is still Chair on the website. So has he been terminated as Chair?

Congresswoman, I —

And Shafik’s answers are maybe a little surprising.

— before getting back to you. I can confirm —

I know you confirmed that he was under investigation.

Yes, I can confirm that. But I —

Did you confirm he was still the Chair?

He says that Columbia is taking his case seriously. In fact, he’s under investigation right now.

Well, let me ask you this.

I need to check.

Will you make the commitment to remove him as Chair?

And when Stefanik presses her to commit to removing him from a campus leadership position —

I think that would be — I think — I would — yes. Let me come back with yes. But I think I — I just want to confirm his current status before I write —

We’ll take that as a yes, that you will confirm that he will no longer be chair.

Shafik seems to pause and think and then agree to it on the spot, almost like she is making administrative decisions with or in front of Congress.

Now, we did some reporting after the fact. And it turns out the Professor didn’t even realize he was under investigation. So he’s learning about this from the hearing too. So what this all adds up to, I think, is a performance so in line with what the lawmakers themselves wanted to hear, that at certain points, these Republicans didn’t quite know what to do with it. They were like the dog that caught the car.

Columbia beats Harvard and UPenn.

One of them, a Republican from Florida, I think at one point even marvelled, well, you beat Harvard and Penn.

Y’all all have done something that they weren’t able to do. You’ve been able to condemn anti-Semitism without using the phrase, it depends on the context. But the —

So Columbia’s president has passed this test before this committee.

Yeah, this big moment that tripped up her predecessors and cost them their jobs, it seems like she has cleared that hurdle and dispatched with the Congressional committee that could have been one of the biggest threats to her presidency.

Without objection, there being no further business, the committee stands adjourned. [BANGS GAVEL]

But back on campus, some of the students and faculty who had been watching the hearing came away with a very different set of conclusions. They saw a president who was so eager to please Republicans in Congress that she was willing to sell out some of the University’s students and faculty and trample on cherished ideas like academic freedom and freedom of expression that have been a bedrock of American higher education for a really long time.

And there was no clearer embodiment of that than what had happened that morning just as President Shafik was going to testify before Congress. A group of students before dawn set up tents in the middle of Columbia’s campus and declared themselves a pro-Palestinian encampment in open defiance of the very rules that Dr. Shafik had put in place to try and get these protests under control.

So these students in real-time are beginning to test some of the things that Columbia’s president has just said before Congress.

Exactly. And so instead of going to celebrate her successful appearance before Congress, Shafik walks out of the hearing room and gets in a black SUV to go right back to that war room, where she’s immediately confronted with a major dilemma. It basically boils down to this, she had just gone before Congress and told them, I’m going to get tough on these protests. And here they were. So either she gets tough and risks inflaming tension on campus or she holds back and does nothing and her words before Congress immediately look hollow.

And what does she decide?

So for the next 24 hours, she tries to negotiate off ramps. She consults with her Deans and the New York Police Department. And it all builds towards an incredibly consequential decision. And that is, for the first time in decades, to call the New York City Police Department onto campus in riot gear and break this thing up, suspend the students involved, and then arrest them.

To essentially eliminate this encampment.

Eliminate the encampment and send a message, this is not going to be tolerated. But in trying to quell the unrest, Shafik actually feeds it. She ends up leaving student protesters and the faculty who support them feeling betrayed and pushes a campus that was already on edge into a full blown crisis.


After the break, what all of this has looked like to a student on Columbia’s campus. We’ll be right back.


Is this Isabella?

Yes, this is she.

Hi, Isabella. It’s Michael Barbaro from “The Daily.”

Hi. Nice to meet you.

Earlier this week, we called Isabella Ramírez, the Editor in Chief of Columbia’s undergraduate newspaper, “The Columbia Daily Spectator,” which has been closely tracking both the protests and the University’s response to them since October 7.

So, I mean, in your mind, how do we get to this point? I wonder if you can just briefly describe the key moments that bring us to where we are right now.

Sure. Since October 7, there has certainly been constant escalation in terms of tension on campus. And there have been a variety of moves that I believe have distanced the student body, the faculty, from the University and its administration, specifically the suspension of Columbia’s chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace. And that became a huge moment in what was characterized as suppression of pro-Palestinian activism on campus, effectively rendering those groups, quote, unquote, unauthorized.

What was the college’s explanation for that?

They had cited in that suspension a policy which states that a demonstration must be approved within a certain window, and that there must be an advance notice, and that there’s a process for getting an authorized demonstration. But the primary point was this policy that they were referring to, which we later reported, was changed before the suspension.

So it felt a little ad hoc to people?

Yes, it certainly came as a surprise, especially at “Spectator.” We’re nerds of the University in the sense that we are familiar with faculty and University governance. But even to us, we had no idea where this policy was coming from. And this suspension was really the first time that it entered most students’ sphere.

Columbia’s campus is so known for its activism. And so in my time of being a reporter, of being an editor, I’ve overseen several protests. And I’ve never seen Columbia penalize a group for, quote, unquote, not authorizing a protest. So that was certainly, in our minds, unprecedented.

And I believe part of the justification there was, well, this is a different time. And I think that is a reasonable thing to say. But I think a lot of students, they felt it was particularly one-sided, that it was targeting a specific type of speech or a specific type of viewpoint. Although, the University, of course, in its explicit policies, did not outline, and was actually very explicit about not targeting specific viewpoints —

So just to be super clear, it felt to students — and it sounds like, journalistically, it felt to you — that the University was coming down in a uniquely one-sided way against students who were supporting Palestinian rights and may have expressed some frustrations with Israel in that moment.

Yes. Certainly —

Isabella says that this was just the beginning of a really tense period between student protesters and the University. After those two student groups were suspended, campus protests continued. Students made a variety of demands. They asked that the University divest from businesses that profit from Israel’s military operations in Gaza. But instead of making any progress, the protests are met with further crackdown by the University.

And so as Isabella and her colleagues at the college newspaper see it, there’s this overall chilling effect that occurs. Some students become fearful that if they participate in any demonstrations, they’re going to face disciplinary action. So fast forward now to April, when these student protesters learned that President Shafik is headed to Washington for her congressional testimony. It’s at this moment that they set out to build their encampment.

I think there was obviously a lot of intention in timing those two things. I think it’s inherently a critique on a political pressure and this congressional pressure that we saw build up against, of course, Claudine Gay at Harvard and Magill at UPenn. So I think a lot of students and faculty have been frustrated at this idea that there are not only powers at the University that are dictating what’s happening, but there are perhaps external powers that are also guiding the way here in terms of what the University feels like it must do or has to do.

And I think that timing was super crucial. Having the encampment happen on the Wednesday morning of the hearing was an incredible, in some senses, interesting strategy to direct eyes to different places.

All eyes were going to be on Shafik in DC. But now a lot of eyes are on New York. The encampment is set up in the middle of the night slash morning, prior to the hearing. And so what effectively happens is they caught Shafik when she wasn’t on campus, when a lot of senior administration had their resources dedicated to supporting Shafik in DC.

And you have all of those people not necessarily out of commission, but with their focus elsewhere. So the encampment is met with very little resistance at the beginning. There were public safety officers floating around and watching. But at the very beginning hours, I think there was a sense of, we did it.

[CHANTING]: Disclose! Divest! We will not stop! We will not rest. Disclose! Divest! We will not stop!

It would be quite surprising to anybody and an administrator to now suddenly see dozens of tents on this lawn in a way that I think very purposely puts an imagery of, we’re here to stay. As the morning evolved and congressional hearings continued —

Minouche Shafik, open your eyes! Use of force, genocide!

Then we started seeing University delegates that were coming to the encampment saying, you may face disciplinary action for continuing to be here. I think that started around almost — like 9:00 or 10:00 AM, they started handing out these code of conduct violation notices.

Hell no! Hell no! Hell no!

Then there started to be more public safety action and presence. So they started barricading the entrances. The day progressed, there was more threat of discipline. The students became informed that if they continue to stay, they will face potential academic sanctions, potential suspension.

The more they try to silence us, the louder we will be! The more they —

I think a lot of people were like, OK, you’re threatening us with suspension. But so what?

This is about these systems that Minouche Shafik, that the Board of Trustees, that Columbia University is complicit in.

What are you going to do to try to get us out of here? And that was, obviously, promptly answered.

This is the New York State Police Department.

We will not stop!

You are attempting participate in an unauthorized encampment. You will be arrested and charged with trespassing.

My phone blew up, obviously, from the reporters, from the editors, of saying, oh my god, the NYPD is on our campus. And as soon as I saw that, I came out. And I saw a huge crowd of students and affiliates on campus watching the lawns. And as I circled around that crowd, I saw the last end of the New York Police Department pulling away protesters and clearing out the last of the encampment.

[CHANTING]: We love you! We will get justice for you! We see you! We love you! We will get justice for you! We see you! We love you! We will get justice for you! We see you! We love you! We will get justice for you!

It was something truly unimaginable, over 100 students slash other individuals are arrested from our campus, forcefully removed. And although they were suspended, there was a feeling of traumatic event that has just happened to these students, but also this sense of like, OK, the worst of the worst that could have happened to us just happened.

And for those students who maybe couldn’t go back to — into campus, now all of their peers, who were supporters or are in solidarity, are — in some sense, it’s further emboldened. They’re now not just sitting on the lawns for a pro-Palestinian cause, but also for the students, who have endured quite a lot.

So the crackdown, sought by the president and enforced by the NYPD, ends up, you’re saying, becoming a galvanizing force for a broader group of Columbia students than were originally drawn to the idea of ever showing up on the center of campus and protesting?

Yeah, I can certainly speak to the fact that I’ve seen my own peers, friends, or even acquaintances, who weren’t necessarily previously very involved in activism and organizing efforts, suddenly finding themselves involved.

Can I — I just have a question for you, which is all journalism, student journalism or not student journalism, is a first draft of history. And I wonder if we think of this as a historic moment for Columbia, how you imagine it’s going to be remembered.

Yeah, there is no doubt in my mind that this will be a historic moment for Colombia.

I think that this will be remembered as a moment in which the fractures were laid bare. Really, we got to see some of the disunity of the community in ways that I have never really seen it before. And what we’ll be looking to is, where do we go from here? How does Colombia repair? How do we heal from all of this? so That is the big question in terms of what will happen.

Nick, Isabella Ramírez just walked us through what this has all looked like from the perspective of a Columbia student. And from what she could tell, the crackdown ordered by President Shafik did not quell much of anything. It seemed, instead, to really intensify everything on campus. I’m curious what this has looked like for Shafik.

It’s not just the students who are upset. You have faculty, including professors, who are not necessarily sympathetic to the protesters’ view of the war, who are really outraged about what Shafik has done here. They feel that she’s crossed a boundary that hasn’t been crossed on Columbia’s campus in a really long time.

And so you start to hear things by the end of last week like censure, no confidence votes, questions from her own professors about whether or not she can stay in power. So this creates a whole new front for her. And on top of it all, as this is going on, the encampment itself starts to reform tent-by-tent —

— almost in the same place that it was. And Shafik decides that the most important thing she could do is to try and take the temperature down, which means letting the encampment stand. Or in other words, leaning in the other direction. This time, we’re going to let the protesters have their say for a little while longer.

The problem with that is that, over the weekend, a series of images start to emerge from on campus and just off of it of some really troubling anti-Semitic episodes. In one case, a guy holds up a poster in the middle of campus and points it towards a group of Jewish students who are counter protesting. And it says, I’m paraphrasing here, Hamas’ next targets.

I saw an image of that. What it seemed to evoke was the message that Hamas should murder those Jewish students. That’s the way the Jewish students interpreted it.

It’s a pretty straightforward and jarring statement. At the same time, just outside of Columbia’s closed gates —

Stop killing children!

— protestors are showing up from across New York City. It’s hard to tell who’s affiliated with Columbia, who’s not.

Go back to Poland! Go back to Poland!

There’s a video that goes viral of one of them shouting at Jewish students, go back to Poland, go back to Europe.

In other words, a clear message, you’re not welcome here.

Right. In fact, go back to the places where the Holocaust was committed.

Exactly. And this is not representative of the vast majority of the protesters in the encampment, who mostly had been peaceful. They would later hold a Seder, actually, with some of the pro-Palestinian Jewish protesters in their ranks. But those videos are reaching members of Congress, the very same Republicans that Shafik had testified in front of just a few days before. And now they’re looking and saying, you have lost control of your campus, you’ve turned back on your word to us, and you need to resign.

They call for her outright resignation over this.

That’s right. Republicans in New York and across the country began to call for her to step down from her position as president of Columbia.

So Shafik’s dilemma here is pretty extraordinary. She has set up this dynamic where pleasing these members of Congress would probably mean calling in the NYPD all over again to sweep out this encampment, which would mean further alienating and inflaming students and faculty, who are still very upset over the first crackdown. And now both ends of this spectrum, lawmakers in Washington, folks on the Columbia campus, are saying she can’t lead the University over this situation before she’s even made any fateful decision about what to do with this second encampment. Not a good situation.

No. She’s besieged on all sides. For a while, the only thing that she can come up with to offer is for classes to go hybrid for the remainder of the semester.

So students who aren’t feeling safe in this protest environment don’t necessarily have to go to class.

Right. And I think if we zoom out for a second, it’s worth bearing in mind that she tried to choose a different path here than her counterparts at Harvard or Penn. And after all of this, she’s kind of ended up in the exact same thicket, with people calling for her job with the White House, the Mayor of New York City, and others. These are Democrats. Maybe not calling on her to resign quite yet, but saying, I don’t know what’s going on your campus. This does not look good.

That reality, that taking a different tack that was supposed to be full of learnings and lessons from the stumbles of her peers, the fact that didn’t really work suggests that there’s something really intractable going on here. And I wonder how you’re thinking about this intractable situation that’s now arrived on these college campuses.

Well, I don’t think it’s just limited to college campuses. We have seen intense feelings about this conflict play out in Hollywood. We’ve seen them in our politics in all kinds of interesting ways.

In our media.

We’ve seen it in the media. But college campuses, at least in their most idealized form, are something special. They’re a place where students get to go for four years to think in big ways about moral questions, and political questions, and ideas that help shape the world they’re going to spend the rest of their lives in.

And so when you have a question that feels as urgent as this war does for a lot of people, I think it reverberates in an incredibly intense way on those campuses. And there’s something like — I don’t know if it’s quite a contradiction of terms, but there’s a collision of different values at stake. So universities thrive on the ability of students to follow their minds and their voices where they go, to maybe even experiment a little bit and find those things.

But there are also communities that rely on people being able to trust each other and being able to carry out their classes and their academic endeavors as a collective so they can learn from one another. So in this case, that’s all getting scrambled. Students who feel strongly about the Palestinian cause feel like the point is disruption, that something so big, and immediate, and urgent is happening that they need to get in the faces of their professors, and their administrators, and their fellow students.

Right. And set up an encampment in the middle of campus, no matter what the rules say.

Right. And from the administration’s perspective, they say, well, yeah, you can say that and you can think that. And that’s an important process. But maybe there’s some bad apples in your ranks. Or though you may have good intentions, you’re saying things that you don’t realize the implications of. And they’re making this environment unsafe for others. Or they’re grinding our classes to a halt and we’re not able to function as a University.

So the only way we’re going to be able to move forward is if you will respect our rules and we’ll respect your point of view. The problem is that’s just not happening. Something is not connecting with those two points of view. And as if that’s not hard enough, you then have Congress and the political system with its own agenda coming in and putting its thumb on a scale of an already very difficult situation.

Right. And at this very moment, what we know is that the forces that you just outlined have created a dilemma, an uncertainty of how to proceed, not just for President Shafik and the students and faculty at Columbia, but for a growing number of colleges and universities across the country. And by that, I mean, this thing that seemed to start at Columbia is literally spreading.

Absolutely. We’re talking on a Wednesday afternoon. And these encampments have now started cropping up at universities from coast-to-coast, at Harvard and Yale, but also at University of California, at the University of Texas, at smaller campuses in between. And at each of these institutions, there’s presidents and deans, just like President Shafik at Columbia, who are facing a really difficult set of choices. Do they call in the police? The University of Texas in Austin this afternoon, we saw protesters physically clashing with police.

Do they hold back, like at Harvard, where there were dramatic videos of students literally running into Harvard yard with tents. They were popping up in real-time. And so Columbia, really, I think, at the end of the day, may have kicked off some of this. But they are now in league with a whole bunch of other universities that are struggling with the same set of questions. And it’s a set of questions that they’ve had since this war broke out.

And now these schools only have a week or two left of classes. But we don’t know when these standoffs are going to end. We don’t know if students are going to leave campus for the summer. We don’t know if they’re going to come back in the fall and start protesting right away, or if this year is going to turn out to have been an aberration that was a response to a really awful, bloody war, or if we’re at the beginning of a bigger shift on college campuses that will long outlast this war in the Middle East.

Well, Nick, thank you very much. Thanks for having me, Michael.

We’ll be right back.

Here’s what else you need to know today. The United Nations is calling for an independent investigation into two mass graves found after Israeli forces withdrew from hospitals in Gaza. Officials in Gaza said that some of the bodies found in the graves were Palestinians who had been handcuffed or shot in the head and accused Israel of killing and burying them. In response, Israel said that its soldiers had exhumed bodies in one of the graves as part of an effort to locate Israeli hostages.

And on Wednesday, Hamas released a video of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, an Israeli-American dual citizen, whom Hamas has held hostage since October 7. It was the first time that he has been shown alive since his captivity began. His kidnapping was the subject of a “Daily” episode in October that featured his mother, Rachel. In response to Hamas’s video, Rachel issued a video of her own, in which she spoke directly to her son.

And, Hersh, if you can hear this, we heard your voice today for the first time in 201 days. And if you can hear us, I am telling you, we are telling you, we love you. Stay strong. Survive.

Today’s episode was produced by Sydney Harper, Asthaa Chaturvedi, Olivia Natt, Nina Feldman, and Summer Thomad, with help from Michael Simon Johnson. It was edited by Devon Taylor and Lisa Chow, contains research help by Susan Lee, original music by Marion Lozano and Dan Powell, and was engineered by Chris Wood. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly. That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.

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Featuring Nicholas Fandos

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Columbia University has become the epicenter of a growing showdown between student protesters, college administrators and Congress over the war in Gaza and the limits of free speech.

Nicholas Fandos, who covers New York politics and government for The Times, walks us through the intense week at the university. And Isabella Ramírez, the editor in chief of Columbia’s undergraduate newspaper, explains what it has all looked like to a student on campus.

On today’s episode

Nicholas Fandos , who covers New York politics and government for The New York Times

Isabella Ramírez , editor in chief of The Columbia Daily Spectator

A university building during the early morning hours. Tents are set up on the front lawn. Banners are displayed on the hedges.

Background reading

Inside the week that shook Columbia University .

The protests at the university continued after more than 100 arrests.

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We aim to make transcripts available the next workday after an episode’s publication. You can find them at the top of the page.

Research help by Susan Lee .

The Daily is made by Rachel Quester, Lynsea Garrison, Clare Toeniskoetter, Paige Cowett, Michael Simon Johnson, Brad Fisher, Chris Wood, Jessica Cheung, Stella Tan, Alexandra Leigh Young, Lisa Chow, Eric Krupke, Marc Georges, Luke Vander Ploeg, M.J. Davis Lin, Dan Powell, Sydney Harper, Mike Benoist, Liz O. Baylen, Asthaa Chaturvedi, Rachelle Bonja, Diana Nguyen, Marion Lozano, Corey Schreppel, Rob Szypko, Elisheba Ittoop, Mooj Zadie, Patricia Willens, Rowan Niemisto, Jody Becker, Rikki Novetsky, John Ketchum, Nina Feldman, Will Reid, Carlos Prieto, Ben Calhoun, Susan Lee, Lexie Diao, Mary Wilson, Alex Stern, Dan Farrell, Sophia Lanman, Shannon Lin, Diane Wong, Devon Taylor, Alyssa Moxley, Summer Thomad, Olivia Natt, Daniel Ramirez and Brendan Klinkenberg.

Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly. Special thanks to Sam Dolnick, Paula Szuchman, Lisa Tobin, Larissa Anderson, Julia Simon, Sofia Milan, Mahima Chablani, Elizabeth Davis-Moorer, Jeffrey Miranda, Renan Borelli, Maddy Masiello, Isabella Anderson and Nina Lassam.

Nicholas Fandos is a Times reporter covering New York politics and government. More about Nicholas Fandos



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