Law of Least Effort

This week, I was considering some of our programs and I found myself wondering: When we need to get new information, how do we find it? A whole bunch of ideas came to me (after all, I do work in education). However, I decided to spend a day noting how I, as well as the people around me, sought and obtained new information. Here’s what I discovered. Most of the time, we ask whoever is handy. I’m serious. Take my daughter for example, who is in physics this semester. She asked me for clarification on a problem she was working on with her homework. Was it my reputation for being a physics wiz that compelled her to seek my help? Nope. I happened to be in the kitchen at the moment she had a question.

According to Daniel Kahneman, and a slew of other brain scientists, a general “law of least effort” applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion. The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs.

This law or principle is a broad theory that covers fields from biology to Web page design. We are like water; we choose the path of least resistance. Research has shown that information-seeking clients will tend to use the most convenient search method, in the least exacting mode available. Information seeking stops as soon as MINIMALLY ACCEPTABLE results are found, in most cases. In other words, seekers will use tools that are most familiar and easiest to use to find results, even if the results only meet the minimum of what they need. Or like my daughter demonstrated, humans are more likely to ask the person sitting next to them – who may know very little – than to consult a specialist a block away as long as the person sitting next to them gives an answer within a basic threshold of acceptability. Hmmm. This has implications for our work.

Much of this research has been used in library science to redesign search tools, but it’s also shaped Web design and educational methodology. That got me wondering if in Extension and Outreach we have kept up with how information seekers want to access information. How have we adapted to make it easy, convenient, and handy to get information from us? Fifty years ago, “convenient and handy” was a physical location; how about today? Clearly, we believe we provide both information and an experience for our citizens, but if we don’t modify systems to address how humans seek information, will they seek us out for the experience? Essentially, how do we ensure we’re “handy” when our citizens are seeking information? See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

Just the Facts

My daughter, Wren, enjoys the fun facts found on the inside of drink lids or on some of her favorite websites. She loves to regale me with such nuggets as, “On average, wherever you are, there is a spider within eight feet of you,”[1] and “Kangaroos cannot walk backwards.”[2] While mostly useless, some of them are rather intriguing. On occasion, she has read a fact that I have found bizarre: “Slugs have four noses,”[3] or “Horseshoe crab blood has probably saved your life.”[4]  We’ll be in the car, heading to some activity, and she’ll throw one out. We’ll mull it over and then move on to our activity. An hour later, I typically won’t remember whatever the fun fact was, except maybe that spider one. The reason?  Context. Without context or some framework to help make them meaningful, facts can’t translate into knowledge; they remain data.

Saunya Peterson, who identifies herself as a professional communicator, argues that story often gets lost when you present facts without context. Her example: “Young girl is mysteriously transported to a strange land where she kills the first woman she meets, then teams up with three strangers to kill again.” Peterson summarizes that while these are the facts of the Wizard of Oz, it is decidedly not the story.

John Kotter, a Harvard Business School Professor agrees. He argues that having more data often is less persuasive. It’s easy to get into a recitation of facts. It’s getting easier and easier to find them, like on drink lids. But it’s not just facts our constituents want — they are swimming in them. They want usable information or education within a meaningful context. Let’s not forget that in Extension and Outreach, we pull together the content derived from research, accumulated field experiences, and relevant principles to provide citizens with independent, impartial information, and through partnerships, the useful context. See you there.

— Cathann

[1] While it is debatable, from a mathematical perspective it’s possible unless you are floating in the middle of the ocean — at which point, you probably have other issues to worry about more than spiders.
[2] True. They cannot walk or hop backwards. But why would they want to?
[3] True. Although, calling them “noses” may be stretching it, they do have four pneumostomes, which are holes they breathe through (and which they can close).
[4] True. Horseshoe crab blood is used to test drugs from endotoxins. If you have ever had a tetanus shot, a flu shot, or any kind of shot, it was likely tested with horseshoe crab blood.

Knowledge That Works

Well over a decade ago, the tagline for ISU Extension was Knowledge That Works. I was part of the committee that promoted it, and many of us felt that it identified the core of ISU Extension and what we brought to the citizens of Iowa. Then something called the Internet and the Food Network showed up.

The Internet and cable television were total game-changers for extension because they provided 24-hour immediate access to information to anyone who could figure out how to use them. Suddenly, all the questions that used to come to the local extension office started to be answered by “Ask Jeeves” and eventually, Google. Information about food became accessible around the clock and it was entertaining too. So, if everyone has access to similar kinds of information – what exactly is unique about what ISU Extension and Outreach has to offer? If we’re no longer operating within an “expert” model, what model do we use?

showing heifers at Story County Fair

Check out this photo for clues to what I think the answer is: That’s Jamie Flynn in the pink shirt, me, and Casey Allison at the Story County Fair. Jamie and Casey were kind enough to share their showmanship expertise with me in preparation for the State Fair. Clearly, I am not the expert in this situation. Marshall Ruble connected me with these young women, who were patient teachers.

ISU Extension and Outreach is people making connections with people and somehow changing for the better. Sometimes, extension educates citizens. Sometimes, citizens educate extension. The reason ISU Extension and Outreach can continue to be about knowledge long after that tagline is that we’re not just about information. We’re about people. That’s work that matters. See you there.

*Incidentally, the next day, Mary (the heifer I’m holding) was named Supreme Champion Breeding Heifer for the Story County Fair.  Congratulations to Jamie.


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