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10 Cognitive biases that hurt learning and 3 that help

E-learning modules are created and deployed in order to fill a learning gap or bring some skills forward and drive a certain desired behavior. Sometimes employees are enrolled by their superiors, other times they log on to the platform and access what they need at a given time. Either way, a successful learning experience should result in some sort of change.

Needless to say, quite often this does not happen, to the frustration of managers and L&D specialists who have invested in those interventions, and as a result expect them to have a positive outcome. It’s important to follow some steps before launching a course in order to make sure it has the best chances of succeeding in altering behaviors.

Turn cognitive biases into opportunities

I know the word „bias” has come to have a rather negative connotation. In today’s world we are encouraged to be free of any such mechanisms and embrace everything with an open mind and an easy heart. Unfortunately, our brain does not function in that way.

Cognitive biases develop naturally throughout our lives as we learn from experiences and establish some "mental short-cuts" to navigate new situations and make decisions. These biases are closely related to our value and belief system and for the most part they help us function in a coherent and predictable way. They also come in very handy in stressful situations when we have to act quickly.

Read more: The learning brain and why L&D professionals should care about it

10 Cognitive biases that hurt learning

When it comes to learning, biases are not that extraordinary. Since the purpose of any teaching module is to change something in behavior (or generate a new one altogether) and the point of biases is to help individuals act in a way that is similar and consistent with their previous experiences, the latter are obviously in the way of the first.

Here are some of the most common learning-stopping biases:

  1. Functional Fixedness: This bias limits an individual to using an object or idea only in the traditionally established way. It’s the so popular „thinking inside the box” routine.
  2. Mere Exposure Effect: This is the very natural tendency of likening something on the account of it being familiar.
  3. Not Thought of Here bias: The tendency to distrust any information, ideas, or products developed outside of a certain (usually familiar) group.
  4. Reactance: The impulse to do the opposite of what is asked to in order to preserve a sense of freedom of choice.
  5. Status Quo bias: The tendency to want things to remain relatively the same as they have always been. It’s what makes us resistant to change.
  6. System Justification bias: The tendency to try to actively maintain the status quo no matter what.
  7. Confirmation bias: The tendency to easily accept information that is consistent with your point of view and reject any information that contradicts it.
  8. Anchoring bias: The tendency to place excessive importance on one piece of information - often the first one you learned about a subject.
  9. Dunning-Kruger effect: The tendency for incompetent people to overestimate their competence, and very competent people to underestimate theirs.
  10. Curse of Knowledge bias: When well-informed people are unable to look at an issue from the perspective of a less informed person – it’s when we overcomplicate things.

3 cognitive biases that can help learning

Fortunately, there are some cognitive biases that can be used to enhance learning transfer and retention. They may be less numerous than the pesky ones that get in the way of novelty but if employed in the right way, they’ll bring spectacular results.

Read more: Overcoming the most common roadblocks to knowledge transfer

1. Self-serving bias

This is focused on the ‚why’. That very important „what’s in it for me?” question needs to be clearly answered so that the learner sees the real value of the learning intervention. Since this is all very personal, it’s important to not only underline the relevance of the course itself but also link it to the individual’s value and belief system.

Since work behavior is deeply value-related, it’s crucial to take a look at the organizational culture and also get a good idea of what exactly makes future learners tick. Another important component of this cognitive bias is recognition. People need not only to see how learning something can help improve their lives but also need recognition for their effort and achievement. Celebrating success is a must.

Read more: Recognizing training success with digital badges

2. Context-effect

People remember things better if they learn them in the context where they are applicable. That’s why children recall geographical details with great accuracy if they notice them on road trips and understand even the most complicated science if they whiteness experiments demonstrating it. Adults are not much different so if the goal is for them to apply some knowledge, it’s best to teach it using the context in which it is useful.

The modern technologies, including VR and AR, make it possible to do so even if the subject is as sensitive as emergency medical intervention. Making learning immersive has the amazing capacity of improving retention and applicability rates so instructional designers need to tap into the immense potential of putting information and skills in the appropriate context.

Read more: 5 Types of immersive technology for training

3. Image superiority effect

This is somehow connected to the previous cognitive bias because placing learning in context has an important visual component. The point is that pictures have a much greater impact than words alone.

Researcher Allan Paivio postulates that pictures have advantages over words when it comes to coding and retrieval of stored memory because pictures are coded more easily and can be retrieved from symbolic mode, while the dual coding process using words is more difficult. Several experiments have shown that "human memory is extremely sensitive to the symbolic modality of presentation of event information".

Including relevant imagery in courses and presentations is a good way of making facts and figures stick. It’s important, though, for all visual material to be carefully chosen and support the message that is being conveyed rather than overpower it.

All in all

It’s futile to try and fight cognitive biases since they are the brain’s natural way of making sense of things. Being aware of them and employing those that may work to the advantage of learning interventions is, however, advisable.