As a member of the learning and development industry, I am bombarded with research, insights, event invites, and models almost daily

2019-5 A nudge in the right direction: how our brains have evolved, and what we need to do about it


As a member of the learning and development industry, I am bombarded with research, insights, event invites, and models almost daily – each one promising to be the missing piece that will ‘unlock potential’, ‘enhance performance’ or ‘change the game’.

Amongst all the noise, two insights into human behaviour from the fields of psychology and behavioural economics have stuck with me – the theory of ‘transactive memory’ and the persuasive power of ‘nudges’. Every business should be across these concepts in order to proactively challenge thinking and approaches, and achieve great outcomes for everyone involved.

I could simply tell you to Google transactive memory and nudges. Instead, I’d much rather share why I think they’re so powerful and how you can apply them. As you’ll soon learn, there’s a good chance you’ll go and Google them later anyway…


Google has changed how our brains remember information 

In 2013, I saw Betsy Sparrow of Columbia University present her research findings on transactive memory, and I still regularly revisit her studies. She and her team were interested in the potential impact the increased use of search engines like Google has on our brains. It turns out that when faced with a difficult question, our default response is often to go online and search for the answer (sometimes even when we know what it is ). Not only that, but if we’re learning something and know that we’ll be able to access the information at a later stage (say, through a search engine or by asking the person who initially shared), we actually end up with a lower ability to recall the information itself. Rather than retaining the knowledge, we’re now better at recalling where to access it.

The study concluded that we’re starting to consider computers, and the information we know we can access from them, as external storage of our own memory. This is known as transactive memory. In a learning setting, whether we’re trying to discover something ourselves, teach a team member, or educate a customer, our reliance on search engines is a powerful consideration. 

Often, our role in business – whether we’re leading, advising, or supporting customers – is to help people better understand things so that they can become more successful. We might do this through helping them make a connection between a task they need to perform and a tool, image or resource that can enable them to do it better or faster. The discovery of transactive memory should encourage us to focus as much on sharing the information itself, as conveying how or where people can find it when they need it down the track. This could be as simple as suggesting they bookmark a helpful link, or pulling useful resources together into an online hub. Rather than trying to cram everything into someone’s brain, help them to fill their ‘external hard drive’ with powerful pathways they can access long after your interaction.

Now that you know how our brains have evolved to remember and recall information differently, it’s time to explore the ways we can encourage desired behaviour and build positive habits.


Our behaviour is often driven by ‘nudges’

A couple of years ago, I was in the UK attending a conference on how to ‘change behaviour’ and ‘manage change’. I’m inspired by what humans can achieve in optimal environments, and at the time was immersed in leading a large scale behaviour change program. Needless to say, I was up to my eyeballs in models and theories. I raised my hand and asked, “What can we actually do to create the ideal behaviours?”

In response, I was expecting something deep about intrinsic motivation, purpose, and meaning. Instead, the speaker responded with: “Nudges”.

Fast forward three years, and I’m attending Arun Pradhan's Learning Disruption event with leaders in the space from across the globe. Arun introduced us to who we like to think we are: conscious, rational, reflective, decisive, and clear on what we want. Daniel Kahneman calls this higher effort approach ‘slow thinking’ in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. But, as it turns out, we spend a lot of time in the lower effort, reactive, and error prone ‘fast thinking’ space. As a result, our actions and choices are often subconsciously based on the path of least resistance, with preferences shifting based more on emotions and less on rational outcomes.

So, how might we inspire the right actions, choices and ultimately habits for ourselves, our teams, and our customers, in a predominantly fast-thinking world?

You guessed it, nudges.

A nudge is, “Any aspect of choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.” It must be easy, attractive, social and timely. For example, you might auto-select a tick box and ask someone to ‘untick’ if they don’t want to do a particular thing, as opposed to asking them to tick to opt in. Same decision and empowerment, less effort for the desired behaviour. You can read more about nudges in Richard H. Thalers’ book, and see some incredible and often hilarious examples of how these are being used to initiate desired behaviours in this infographic. 

While there are obvious applications within the marketing field, considering fast thinking and nudges well beyond customer acquisition (not to mention, in your personal life) can have huge benefits in empowering people to do what they do best, and enabling them to focus on what’s most important.

You now know that our reliance on search engines has started to cause us to retain information differently, along with learning what we can do to encourage ideal behaviour. Based on these insights, how might you change the way you educate your teams and customers for positive impact? And what nudges might you introduce into your workflows and experiences which drive positive actions and outcomes?

Hayley Steer Xero