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Your Lazy Brain – Finding the Path of Least Resistance

I recently wrote about “desire paths” and learning, linking a concept in architectural design to learning design. Basically, the idea is that our brains naturally look for the easiest path to our destination, so over time users of a system will show the designers where the formal pathways should be. It turns out that your brain isn’t just looking at the easiest path in the physical world; it is constantly creating a backup plan for every tiny decision you make, all day long. Say you’re getting ready for work and you pick out your blue suit, but you spill coffee on it during breakfast. So you change plans and put on the black suit instead. In the background, while you were selecting the blue suit, your brain was already tagging your second choice as a backup plan. Your unconscious criteria may have included choosing a backup that won’t require you change your shirt and socks, the way choosing the brown suit might. When you’re walking on a busy sidewalk, your brain is calculating the many little moves you may need to zig and zag around slower walkers to get where you want to go. But suddenly a woman in front of you drops her shopping bag. Now you have to recalculate and find another route. The reason we’re able to do this so seamlessly without even breaking stride is because of this background predictive capability. Your brain activates the muscles needed for multiple actions before making a decision on the move that we actually take, so your body is much more equipped to react quickly as your environment changes.

The Dangers of Least Resistance Thinking

Initially, this sounds like a really great adaptation. Our ability to predict what may happen next and have several plans ready to implement in a split second seems like a powerful survival skill. However, scientists at the University of London recently found that while we’re evaluating and ranking our options we’re biased towards the one that is the easiest. If it isn’t available, we’ll go to the next easiest and so on. While this adaptation makes perfect sense if you are climbing a mountain or threading your way through dense forest, it can get us into trouble in today’s complex but far less physically challenging world. Participants in the London study were taught a simple sorting skill, moving a lever to the left or right based on what they saw on the screen. After they mastered this skill, researchers secretly started making one of the levers harder to move. Participants stopped correctly sorting the images to avoid having to do the extra work. They didn’t make a conscious choice to make mistakes. Instead, the brain changed what these people saw, so that they could move the easier lever and feel good about it. Imagine the many things you do at work. What if you are unconsciously choosing your actions based on which choice is easiest? You might not always be making the best choices for your company, your client, or even yourself. Researchers suggest this may explain why most employees will choose to find another job when they get dissatisfied, rather than stay and work towards a promotion. It might also explain why so many companies limp along with an outdated “legacy” system instead of doing what they know they will have to do eventually – build a new system. Because keeping that legacy system is easier, the brains makes that choice start to look like the smartest move, even if it isn’t.

Never ask out a “10”

We carry this path of least resistance thinking to other parts of our lives too. A study by Trinity College in Dublin found that when single people were shown photos of people and asked who they would ask out, the most attractive people were not the most frequently selected. While the brain clearly shows an instant attraction to the person in the photo, there is an instant decision to reject, moving to the next photo on the list. Why ask out a “10” if you’re not at least an 8.5 yourself, right? This explanation may explain why some of the prettiest girls (and boys) in high school are often sitting at home, because very few kids have the self-confidence to ask them out.

What does this mean to the learning professional?

The learning professional needs to be aware of this hard-wired behavior in the brain and prepare for it. When teaching a new skill, your learners may reject changing their behavior because it is a lot harder than doing things “the way we’ve always done it.” Compliance training is particularly challenging. Very often the correct and compliant action is harder to take than other options that are available to the employee. So if everyone is always looking for the easy way out, how can we get them to take the harder road and succeed? One approach might be to demonstrate how the new behavior, once learned, will actually become the path of least resistance, by saving time, reducing rework or saving money. If you can’t make a plausible case that your content represents a new and easier approach, you might be able to short out this circuit by making a strong emotional appeal. In 2007, pioneering neuroscientists Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Antonio Damasio discovered that when we are inspired our brains are far more active, lighting up connections all over the brain, making a much stronger learning experience. To do this, our brains actually have to work harder, following a path of greater resistance. But we’ll only do that if we’re inspired. Your lazy brain gives you a choice – prove that the path you’re teaching is really the easiest path after all, or inspire us so much that we’re willing to make the extra effort.

When President John Kennedy challenged Americans to go to the moon, he said:
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard

So take a look at your lesson plan. What’s your “moon shot” moment? If you don’t have one, you’d better be teaching your learners’ lazy brains how to take the path of least resistance, because that’s where they’re going anyway.

Margie Meacham

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