By: A. Silva Hofstadler
In a river, the water running downhill always finds a path that allows it to flow in the easiest way possible. For example, when the water hits a rock, it flows around it. This is because it is generally easier to move around the rock if the water does not have enough energy to physically push it. This phenomenon is called taking the path of least resistance.
Humans do the same thing – our brains tend to take the path of least resistance when given the opportunity.
A study conducted by University College London, published in eLife, proved this phenomenon with a simple experiment. Researchers showed participants a screen with dots moving either to the right or to the left. Participants were instructed to move a handle to the right if the dot cloud was moving right, and to the left if the cloud was moving left. The participants were very good at this first trial, but things got more complicated when researchers added a directional load to the handle. Once it was slightly harder to move the handle in the way the dots were going, the participants judgements about what they saw became biased. If weight was added to the left handle, participants were more likely to judge the dots to be moving rightwards as that decision was slightly easier for them to express.
What is notable about this experiment is that the participants didn’t even realize that the researchers were manipulating their decisions. Their motor systems automatically adapted to the new circumstances, and they started believing that the dots were truly moving in the direction of least resistance. As Dr Hagura, the leader of the research team states "The tendency to avoid the effortful decision remained even when we asked people to switch to expressing their decision verbally, instead of pushing on the handles. The gradual change in the effort of responding caused a change in how the brain interpreted the visual input. Importantly, this change happened automatically, without any awareness or deliberate strategy."
But why does this happen?
Our brains are hard-wired to avoid things that require effort as they might make us tired or or uncomfortable. The problem is, when we always take the path of least resistance, we inhibit ourselves from learning and growing. Going against the path of least resistance might not be as pleasurable in the moment, but generally has good outcomes. It requires willpower. Sure, it is easier and more comfortable to lay in bed scrolling through social media than to than to exercise. In these instances, taking the path of least resistance is an option, but it is the option that will not help us grow and become the best version of ourselves.
Picture source: https://www.greenbiz.com/article/sustainable-business-crossroads-again