The Easy Route

The Easy Route

Here’s an interesting article:


Influence People by Leveraging the Brain’s Laziness

MAY 29, 2015

Discussions of influence are almost always focused on messages and information, the assumption being that the best route to drive people’s actions is to get them to understand the course of action that is best for them and then to pursue it.

But another stream of work on influence has also noticed that the environment affects people’s actions. Over the past decade, proponents of the work described in Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein have focused on small changes that can be made to the environment that have a big effect on behavior. The classic example from this work is that changing the default option from opting in to a retirement program to opting out of one can have a significant affect on how much people save.

In all of this work, though, there is still an assumption that the environment is treated as a reflection of information that should drive preferences. For instance, it’s assumed that people tend to stick with the default option because they do not know enough to change it.

This view of decision-making assumes that information is always at the core of the cognitive economy. But in fact, energy is the key currency that the cognitive system seeks to preserve. The human brain is roughly 3% of people’s body weight and yet it uses 20-25% of our daily energy supply. This energy is required to keep the brain running regardless of exactly what the brain is doing. That means that time spent thinking about a choice is highly correlated with the amount of energy consumed by the brain.

A better way to think about the role of the environment, then, is to recognize that people want to minimize the amount of time and brain energy they spend thinking about a choice and also minimize the amount of time and bodily energy they expend toward carrying out actions after the choice is made. The simplest way to do both is to simply take the actions the environment is conducive to. In other words, people are not treating the environment around them as information in most deliberative processes. Instead, they are performing the easiest actions with as little thought as possible.

So if we want to influence other people’s behavior, we must make desirable behaviors easy and undesirable behaviors hard. Take the design of your grocery store, where impulse purchases are often displayed on the endcaps or in the checkout aisle. You’re not spontaneously purchasing those items because you have more information about those non-necessary products, but based on a combination of what the environment makes easy to do, the habits people have learned from past actions, and the results of previous deliberations about a decision.

Consider a consumer preparing to buy toothpaste. As a child, her parents used Colgate, though she tried Crest and Aquafresh at friends’ houses while growing up and saw plenty of commercials over the years. In college, when she began to make her own toothpaste purchases, she would typically search for the Colgate, but if another common brand was in easy reach, she selected that instead. A promotion that placed a toothpaste she liked in a special display would lead her to grab that as she charged through the store. She was frequently frustrated by the number of times that toothpaste manufacturers changed their packaging, making it more difficult to select one of the brands she typically bought.

In this example, none of these decisions involved significant deliberation. Instead, there were small preferences for brands based on prior exposure and a number of selections based on what was easy to do. Indeed, one thing that brands often do that blocks this low-effort behavior is to change their packaging, which forces the consumer to put in effort to find the familiar brand in an unfamiliar box.

This orientation to the environment can change or reinforce all kinds of behaviors. As I discuss in Smart Change, one of the most successful public health campaigns of the last half-century is the effort in the United States to reduce the number of smokers. One of the most important factors that decreased smoking rates among adults from roughly 50% in the 1960s to about 20% now is the environment. It is no longer possible to smoke in public buildings in most places in the United States. Some businesses no longer allow smoking on their entire campuses. This change to the environment makes an undesirable behavior


In the workplace, there are many ways to set up the environment to drive people toward desirable behaviors. For example, many companies set up databases of prior projects and their outcomes as a way of capturing organizational knowledge. However, these databases are often difficult for employees to access and have clumsy user interfaces that make it hard for people to find what they need. To make the archives more useful, they need to be accessed quickly from people’s computers, and the user interface needs to make it easier to find past reports than it is to ask a few random colleagues if they know of any related projects.

Similarly, if your aim is to get people to schedule shorter meetings, organize the office calendar program in which the default meeting length is 15 or 30 minutes rather than an hour and needs to be adjusted to be longer if necessary. Although people will still end up scheduling a number of hour-long meetings, the need to expend energy to override the standard option will shorten many of the items that end up on people’s schedules.

Anyone interested in influence should start by focusing on the environment of the individual they are trying to affect. Analyze that environment and find ways to make desirable actions easy and undesirable actions difficult. Remember that the human cognitive system aims to get the best possible outcome for the least possible energy cost.

Art Markman, PhD, is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. He has written over 150 scholarly papers on topics including reasoning, decision making, and motivation. He is the author of several books including Smart Thinking,Smart Change, and Habits of Leadership.


Of course that is my idiocy exactly, attempting what only I and a handful of other folks the world over consider to be rational arguments in the most emotional, contentious and consensual subject possible. Of course a nudge is exactly what the UNCRC (United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child) and the anti-corporal punishment movement is hoping to provide by getting governments to pass laws criminalizing the corporal punishment of children. Once that change reaches the world’s biggest empires, then I plan to try to start the next wave of humanism – outlawing the fights parents get into with their children when they’re trying to impose their non-corporal punishments.

That because, in the end, what is the difference to me if you plan, in the most dispassionate way to punish me corporally with a spanking or a beating or whether you decree a non-corporal punishment like ‘grounding’ (curfew/confinement), and wind up beating me up in the fight that ensues when I refuse? How is one a violent crime and not the other? They certainly both are when both assailant and victim are adults. Oh, Hell.

I’m doing it again, aren’t I.

Oh well, I’m home, sick with a parasite, I can’t do all the work my home and yard and employers need, so if this is all I can do right now, I’ll do it.

The thing is, what that article gives us first is, a solid, biological reason why we don’t like to think too much, so we’re all off the hook. Turns out that maybe we’re not just mean and stupid because we’re mean and stupid, that maybe it’s not so much a choice at all. Thinking too much really has had a biological cost forever. The biological cost is energy, they said, I assume it means an advantage where food is not unlimited and more energy efficient genetic lines succeed and survive better.

The costs of not thinking are not all biological, of course, and nearly impossible to measure.

Of course, the energy cost is no excuse for some of us, many of us can afford to find the calories required for conscious thought; but it does mean there’s no shame in not thinking more. It’s our evolutionary heritage, and no-one expects the whole population to swim against the current.

Having said that, it often appears that it is just those of us swimming just that direction – overthinking, thinking about something either other folks just don’t or just in a new way – that have made our species so different from all the others. Somehow, just as there are micro-climates that gardeners need to understand, there are also micro-environments within humanity – we are 90% of our environment, society is our environment now, more so than anything to do with geography or the weather – where there are eddies and back-currents, evolutionary rewards that seem contrary to the general flow. Too, somehow, we have assimilated our own outliers, and made them part of our species’ mosaic, preserving their genes and their ideas rather than letting nature simply dead-end them like one might expect – and we are more intelligent, diversified, and resilient for it. But I digress. Where were we? Energy?

My stance, my epiphany, my cause, my obsession, E., All of the above, is that we shouldn’t punish our children, ever, for anything, that the basic premise of punishment is wrong, doing things to people because they don’t like it, although it appears to provide a motivation in a good direction, unfortunately also hurts, same as abuse, and so actually takes us in the opposite direction in the long run. Punishing is a net cause of misbehaviour and crime, not a cure (I’m happy to argue about that, and if you’ve never read me or a very few other folks who say it, I know, it’s a bombshell. But I’m talking about the stance right now, talking around it, as it were, and the first point of this particular post is not to make that declaration, but to talk about that declaration. Moving on).

My wife and I raised our two girls with no punishment whatsoever, other than a few things that I’ve written about elsewhere, an iPod that didn’t get replaced for several months after losing two of them, and some MMA action between me and our second baby in the family bed on one horrible, sleep deprived night. Other than that, we never tried to train our kids, we simply followed them around to keep them safe. There was a lot of leg work, and that was high-energy work, chasing them, talking endlessly and fruitlessly to them about why we do what we do and why we don’t do what we don’t, and then cleaning up the messes when talking didn’t work. Like I say, high energy – but only for the first five years. We didn’t know what would happen. It was a pleasant, unexpected thing: parenting just started getting easier every year.

As it turned out for us, if you don’t punish, that is if you don’t commit the counter-intuitive-to-a-kid betrayal of punishment, if you don’t start hurting your kids with the very first few exploratory mistakes they make and then just fall into the trap of doing it all the time – you will never have to punish. If you can get through the first several years and wait for them to learn the language, wait until they can talk and reason with you without you trying to hurt them, they will be on your side and life will be easier for you all. I swear to God. For the normal, European-descended Canadians around us while we raised our girls it was the opposite. For them, things just kept getting harder and more contentious all through the teen years.

So, in conclusion, thinking costs energy, and we’ve evolved not to engage in it more than necessary. However, possibly new to this calculation, punishing also costs energy, also threatening our success.

5 thoughts on “The Easy Route

  1. neighsayer June 6, 2015 / 2:50 pm

    I better learn to do this, for when the links drop out of existence:

    It’s the Harvard Business Review,
    Influence People by Leveraging the Brain’s Laziness
    Art Markman
    MAY 29, 2015



  2. neighsayer June 6, 2015 / 2:55 pm

    I always post too quickly, now I’m seeing some scrups I’ll have to edit. Like this:

    “those few of us swimming just that direction that have made our species so different from all the others”

    becomes “those few of us swimming just that direction – overthinking, thinking about something either other folks just don’t or just in a new way – that have made our species so different from all the others”

    I didn’t mean to say some few of us thinking at all! What kind of a d@#$%^&e would say that? I’m sorry, I know. Withdrawn.


    • neighsayer June 6, 2015 / 3:12 pm

      done, and even less d@#$ish, I hope – “”those of us . . . ”
      Still sorry


  3. takingthemaskoff June 6, 2015 / 4:15 pm

    I Hope YOU GET Parasites MORE often. This is good stuff. I. Parent much like you, I focus on the positive that the kids do, and wherever they want to explore, I try to help encourage it. Expose them to everyrhi ng and encourage them to be their own person, not what I want for them.

    Great great stuff. I need to put on some sort of notification for when you post

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The McGuires June 12, 2015 / 7:47 am

    Awesome one jeff xoxo

    Sent from my iPhone



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