Tip #780: How Cognitive Bias Can Help Learning

“But I think that no matter how smart, people usually see what they’re already looking for, that’s all.” Veronica Roth

According to Dashe Thomson,  cognitive biases can be both useful and detrimental to learning. They matter to us because they can make learners and designers resistant to incorporating new information, they can result in learners remembering inaccurate information, or they can prevent learning from happening altogether. Biases that have a negative effect on learning were discussed in Tip #779.

Here is an example of the impact of cognitive biases related to learning and recall. This is a very helpful piece of information if you notice employees reverting back to old procedures after a training program that taught them the new procedures.

The Continued Influence Effect is the tendency to believe previously learned misinformation even after it has been corrected. One cognitive bias that can counteract this negative response is the Humor Effect, which says that humorous items are more easily remembered than non-humorous ones. Relating the new procedure as a funny story, joke or song can help learning transfer and retention. Isn’t that great?!

Here is another example of the impact of cognitive biases on critical thinking and problem solving. There is a Law of the Instrument, which relates to an over reliance on one tool (such as PowerPoint, if you’re a trainer) to the point of detriment. It could be counteracted by the Zeigarnik Effect, which says that uncompleted or interrupted tasks are remembered better than completed ones. It helps us climb out of our PowerPoint rut by giving us permission to try new approaches (e.g., blended learning, participative learning, e-learning) as well as to fail and move on to the next approach. We’ll also remember their details better when we compare results.

Other cognitive biases that you can use to your advantage:

  1. Choice Overload is when people have a difficult time making a decision when faced with many options. So, limit the choices your participants have to make when having them decide which case study to work on, for example.
  2. Context Effect is when people remember things better in the same context where they originally learned the information. When possible, teach or train where learners will be applying the knowledge. This will help them retain what they learned.
  3. Contrast Effect is the perception of an intensified or heightened difference between two stimuli or sensations when they are juxtaposed or when one immediately follows the other. In other words, if you want people to do something, first offer them something more distasteful or time consuming then the less distasteful or time-consuming activity that you really want them to do.
  4. Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is an anxious feeling where people fear they’re missing out on rewarding experiences that other people might be having. You may give participants the opportunity to opt out of an activity, but frame the activity so that its appeal is very strong.
  5. Framing Effect is drawing different conclusions from the same information, depending on how or by whom that information is presented. That is why having top management personally introduce a training program can be so effective. This is also why it is important how you decide to present information from a positive or a negative standpoint.
  6. Halo Effect is when an overall impression of a person influences how we think and feel about his or her character. This is why we want to present ourselves (and actually be) as sincere and committed to helping our participants succeed as possible.
  7. Ikea Effect is the tendency for people to place a disproportionately high value on objects that they partially assembled themselves, regardless of the quality of the end result. This helps to explain why participatory learning activities are so effective, because participants can take pride in their results- which should reinforce positive transfer.
  8. Picture Superiority Effect is based on the idea that a picture is worth a thousand words. Images and pictures are always more memorable than words alone. This is because a picture can convey the meaning or essence of a complex idea more effectively than a description can.
  9. Reciprocity is when someone does something for you, you naturally want to do something for them. For example, a trainer who gives extra breaks when a training room gets very hot or who responds to an evaluation suggestion by implementing it can generate this positive feeling in participants. And if you offer something for free (prizes, for example) participants can feel a sense of indebtedness towards you.
  10. Scarcity is when the more difficult it is to acquire an item, the more value that item has. I’m thinking special activities or prizes here. Perhaps using the lure of the ability to go outside for a small group activity.
  11. Self-Serving Bias focuses on the question, “What’s in it for the learner?” I have written before about two goals of learning programs, what the learners will learn and WHY the learners will care, from their perspective. This bias explains why it is so important to build buy-in activities to a lesson plan. This also explains why candy and prizes are so welcome.

Have you used any of these biases, either consciously or unconsciously, to help participants learn?

May your learning be sweet.


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