Humans are Inertial, Social Creatures: Social Science for Incidental Learning

Learning Life tackles a new frontier of public education.  Rather than focus on schools, we seek to nurture a wider public culture of learning by spreading knowledge on the surfaces of everyday life.  This approach is rooted in the realities that learning happens everywhere and throughout life, not just at school in one’s youth, and often incidentally not just deliberately.  (For more on this, read Learning Life’s credo here, and a blog post on incidental learning here.)

Learning Life’s incidental learning approach is based on insights from social science.  Social science research offers interesting and sometimes surprising insights into human behavior that matter for education.   Here are two important social science insights that help explain the reasoning behind our approach.

Humans are inertial

Humans are social and inertialCall it efficient, lazy, or else, the fact is human beings tend toward inertia: we like to stay put or do the same thing.  This means it’s often difficult to get people to change, or make special efforts.  This is not necessarily a bad thing since change can lead to bad outcomes.  Further, as scholars Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein note in their insightful book, Nudge (2009), inertia can be nudged to beneficial purpose when we start with good decisions.  Thaler and Sunstein raise retirement savings as an example: when the default option employers give to new employees is to reserve a portion of their paycheck for retirement, inertia leads many more workers to start and continue saving for retirement than do so when they otherwise have to elect or opt in to saving.

A parallel can be drawn to education.  Educators traditionally expect students to come to school and make deliberate efforts to learn. Effort is of course necessary to learn.  But increasingly, one does not have to go to school to learn.  More and more universities now offer distance learning and MOOCs (massive open online courses) so students can pursue their education at home or on the go, and at lower cost or free to boot.  Going a step further, Learning Life makes it easier for inertial human beings to learn in everyday life by placing free opportunities to learn in their everyday settings, on napkins in restaurants, coasters in bars, cup sleeves in cafes, cereal boxes at home, etc., then connecting these educational surfaces to more information and quizzes at Learning Life online.

The point is this: given human inertia, it is easier to get people to learn when learning materials are free, readily available, brief and inviting, not just locked up in increasingly expensive schools.

Humans are social

Much social science research confirms that human beings are social creatures.  That is, we not only are interested in what other human beings are doing, we also like to follow and conform to our fellows and people we look up to.  This is true even of “ruggedly individualistic” Americans.  Thus, social scientists have found people remarkably inclined to follow peers even when they’re obviously wrong (Asch 1995), to follow orders even when the order is to kill or torture (Milgram 1974, Zimbardo 2007), to get pregnant when peers are getting pregnant (Akerloff, Yelen & Katz 1996), to get grades similar to those of college roommates (Sacerdote 2001), to get fat when friends are fattening (Christakis & Fowler 2007), to vote when told others will find out if one voted or not (Gerber, Green & Larimer 2008), etc.

This basic social science finding that humans are social creatures leads organizations to, among other things, get experts and celebrities to endorse their brand, products and services, make social proof claims like “fastest growing” or “bestselling,” and more recently, use online social networks like Facebook to let you know that your friends, family and acquaintances like them (Cialdini 2001).

There are legitimate debates about the proper use of social science to influence people, but if learning is a virtue we want to encourage more people to engage in, it makes sense to apply social science insights to nurture public education.  In this case, knowing that humans are social creatures suggests that educational organizations could use social situations to stimulate more learning.  By printing invitations to learning (e.g., stimulating facts plus quiz questions, a puzzle, or riddle about health, history, science or other topic, leading to Learning Life for answers, further learning, fun and reward) on napkins, coasters, cup sleeves, placemats and other surfaces in common social settings, like restaurants, cafeterias, cafes and bars, these invitations can lead to learning and informative discussions among friends, family and acquaintances that might not otherwise occur.

Social science doesn’t just belong in school.  To the extent that social science helps us better understand ourselves and our world, we can and should use and spread its insights to improve ourselves and the world.  Given education’s importance in our complex, intertwined modern world, applying social science insights to improve and extend public education is arguably paramount, and that’s precisely Learning Life’s priority.

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder, Learning Life


Akerloff, George A., Janet L. Yellen, and Michael L. Katz.  1996.  “An Analysis of Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing in the United States.”  Quarterly Journal of Economics 111:277-317.

Asch, Solomon.  1995.  “Opinions and Social Pressure” in Readings about the Social Animal, ed., Elliott Aronson.  New York: W.H. Freeman.

Christakis, Nicholas A., and James H. Fowler.  2007.  “The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years.”  New England Journal of Medicine 357:370-379.

Cialdini, Robert B.  2001.  Influence: Science and Practice.  Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Gerber, Alan S., Donald P. Green, and Christopher W. Larimer.  2008.  “Social Pressure and Voter Turnout: Evidence from a Large-Scale Field Experiment.”  American Political Science Review 102:1:33-48.

Milgram, Stanley.  1974.  Obedience to Authority.  New York: HarperCollins.

Sacerdote, Bruce.  2001.  “Peer Effects with Random Assignment: Results for Dartmouth Roommates.”  Quarterly Journal of Economics 116:681-704.

Thaler, Richard H., and Cass R. Sunstein.  2009.  Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness.  New York: Penguin Books. 

Zimbardo, Philip.  2007.  The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.  New York: Random House.