Them bones, them bones, them lazy bones…

Why our brains make us follow the path of least resistance.

The urge to find the easiest way of doing things with the least amount of effort is one of the reasons human beings have been so inventive. Take the wheel for instance – how much backbreaking work has that simple invention made easier? The same applies to the printing press – an incredible labour saving device compared to a room full of monks copying out entire books by hand.

Researchers at UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience say this urge may be hardwired into our brains. They say it’s so powerful it can change how we perceive choices to make the easier option more attractive.

To prove the point, 52 participants took part in a series of tests where they had to judge whether a cloud of dots on a screen was moving to the left or the right. They expressed their decisions by moving a handle in their left or right hand.

When the researchers gradually added a load to one of the handles, making it more difficult to move, the participant’s judgement became biased, causing them to unconsciously avoid the response that required the most effort. The participants were unaware the load was being added so this change in behaviour was a totally unconscious response – their motor system automatically adapted, triggering a change in their perception.

Dr Nobuhiro Hagura, who led the UCL team said ‘Our brain tricks us into believing the low-hanging fruit really is the ripest.’ In other words, the tendency to avoid the option that involves the most effort affects decision-making. Even when people were asked to express their decision verbally, they still chose the easier option. Therefore, the unconscious cost/benefit analysis will almost always influence behaviour in favour of expending the least effort.

Put more succinctly, a gradual change in the effort of responding caused a change in how the brain interpreted the visual input and this change happened automatically, without any awareness or deliberate strategy.

Traditionally, scientists have assumed the visual system gives us perceptual information, and the motor system is an expression of that. In other words, our decision to act is based on what we see.

The researchers believe that our daily decisions could be modified – not just through deliberate cognitive strategies, but also by designing the environment to make these decisions based on the need to expend more or less effort.

Most behaviour change focuses on promoting a desired behaviour, but the UCL results suggest that people could also be made to see the world in predetermined ways, just by adding or subtracting the amount of effort needed to carry out a behaviour.

This is important work because it has ramifications for the ways in which we are unconsciously manipulated by advertisers and by governments. The phenomena is known as an ‘implicit nudge.’

I’d hate to think this could escape the laboratory, and be employed by people less scrupulous and more powerful than scientists.

What if a series of minor tweaks and alterations subtly changed the way the world looks? What would happen if the tiniest changes in our environment, in the things we watch on TV or look at online, also changed our perceptions just enough to change our behaviour? Could we be made more compliant? Could we be persuaded to buy things we don’t really need, or go to war for no good reason?

Perhaps we already have.

Technology has already made us choose the easiest route to the detriment of our physical wellbeing. Technology means we can now access a massive amount of information or entertainment without getting up from the sofa. We’ve no need to walk to the record store or the cinema. We can peruse books online and even have a look inside without going to the library. We don’t even have to go to the shops anymore because you can get most things delivered within 24 hours.

We can check on our loved ones at the press of a button. We can eat restaurant food by having it delivered, we can shop online, and we can keep in touch with all our friends on Skype and FaceTime. We no longer have to stop and ask directions if we get lost.

I’m writing this article without having to leave the house – all the information I need is literally at my fingertips. 20 years ago, I would have spent half my day in the library flipping through journals and using the photocopier at 10p per sheet.

I recently put together an article on Phone Separation Anxiety – there are literally hundreds of scholarly articles and references on Google, all instantly available at the press of the return key. Sometimes I take my laptop to the library just to feel like I’m actually going to work. I take the long way round then cut through the cemetery because I can’t be bothered to walk up the hill at the end of my street, following the path of least resistance.

 

Copyright Andrew Newton 2017. All rights reserved.