Cost-effectiveness of learning

I often observe some behavior in humans that I find very strange. It is not strange in that I exhibit such behavior with myself, so I can relate to it. But it is strange to me that this behavior seems acceptable from the point of view of evolution. It has to do with the cost-effectiveness of learning new things.

Let us take a small example in order to make things more concrete. Take a person who uses some piece of software on a daily basis, and let us say that there are two ways of using a particular function, one is by using the menu (slow) and the other is by using a keyboard shortcut (fast). I have observed over and over again how many people seem to be happy using the slow method perhaps dozens or hundreds of times per day, even though the fast method could be learned in a matter of minutes.

To make my point clear, let us do some back-of-the-envelope calculations (and these correspond to real observations, not just hypothetical data). Let us say that the difference between the fast method and the slow method is 1 second. Furthermore, let us say that someone is using this function a modest 10 times per day. These are conservative estimates, because I have observed behavior involving much greater differences and with functions that are used hundreds of times per day. Now, 10 seconds per day comes to around a minute per week, or around an hour per year. Learning the fast method might be a matter of a minute of time, perhaps a few minutes at most. In other words, the investment of learning the fast method would pay off in a week or two. Despite this fact, most people do not bother doing it. "Why?", I ask myself.

When I submit my thoughts to people in order to try to help them save time, I get blank stares at best, and sometimes quite violent (verbal, not physical) reactions. It seems that even though I give them the back-of-the-envelope calculation above, the do not find it compelling enough to act upon it accordingly.

At this point you might think that I am guilty of gross exaggerations, because after all, a minute per week is way less than some people spend filing their nails, powdering their noses, and getting another cup of coffee; not to mention the time some people spend outside with a cigarette in their mouth. I would beg to disagree with those of you who think that. First of all, as I already mentioned above, a minute per week is a conservative estimate. The real figure may very well be an order of magnitude greater. Furthermore, a minute per week is only due to a single function, and in reality, there are dozens of such small functions, each one wasting perhaps more than 10 minutes per week. In other words, we are talking about hours per week of wasted effort.

What I find fascinating about my observations is not that someone is willing to waste a little time, but instead how we appear to be psychologically biased against a small up-front investment in time, even though that investment has a potentially huge payoff in a relatively short time. We seem to always opt for the action that gets us the immediate result as fast as possible, no matter how much accumulated effort is wasted. In order for us to take the action that will be the most cost effective, we need to do the math, and even then, many of us are not convinced. In a way, we have to force ourselves to make a decision that is contrary to our intuition.

Since I have no training in psychology, I have talked this over with some psychologists, and I have of course done my homework by searching on the web for any information related to this phenomenon, though I can not claim that my effort has been very systematic, nor very deep. At the moment, I have been unable to find any relevant information. If any reader has more information related to my observation, or even just observations of their own, I would like to know about it.