Learn Better Science

Want to Create More Effective Learning? Use Brain Bias to Your Advantage

Written by Paul Rosevear

Our brains aren’t always as rational as we’d like to think they are. For instance, patients report feeling better after taking sugar pills—even when they know they’re placebos. Wine tastes different to people depending on the colors they see on the label. The best NFL coaches repeatedly run plays that fly in the face of what data says wins games.

How do we explain such irrational quirks of human perception and behavior? Often, the culprit is one or more cognitive biases—mental shortcuts our brains use to process information and make decisions quickly. As the examples above illustrate, sometimes these biases can backfire, causing us to make poor choices or act in ways that don’t entirely make sense.

But let’s not be too critical. Scientists believe that these biases have an adaptive value. Being able to make snap judgements under pressure likely helped our ancestors protect themselves against predators, form safe tribes, and get their basic needs met over the last couple hundred thousand years—just like we do today.

The Cognitive Bias Codex: Click to view all 188 biases, neatly organized into groups and themes, courtesy of the talented folks at designhacks.co.

Using cognitive biases to improve learning

For better or for worse, cognitive biases are here to stay. And they’re often in full swing for today’s employees as they struggle to navigate a fast-paced world of information overload and perpetual change.

But what if you could actually harness these mental habits to create better learning programs, initiatives, and experiences for your organization and its people? Let’s take a look how you can leverage 5 cognitive biases for more effective learning.

Cognitive Bias #1: Loss aversion

#FOMO: A powerful engagement strategy

What it is: Loss Aversion refers to our inclination to avoid loss rather than make gains. For instance, most people would prefer to not lose $20 than find $20.

How to leverage it: When you’re promoting a new learning opportunity, don’t just highlight the benefits—let people also know what they’ll be missing out on if they don’t participate. Will they be confused by a new software or process? Be out of the loop on a new company initiative? Fall behind their peers in skill development? You don’t need to guilt people into participating (though that works, too). Just be clear about what’s at stake, by providing information that entices them to join in.

Cognitive Bias #2: Occam’s Razor

What it is: Occam’s Razor states that the human brain prefers the simple and clear over the complex and ambiguous.

How to leverage it: Whenever you create a learning experience—especially a microlearning one—ruthlessly distill your lesson down to its key points. Of every detail, ask yourself, is this important? Does it drive toward the outcome? Is this excess theory, or it necessary for application?  Sift, simplify, and synthesize until you’re left with only the most salient points. Your learners’ brains will thank you.

Cognitive Bias #3: The Context Effect

What it is: According to The Context Effect, memories are stronger in the act of doing, as opposed to simply memorizing.

How to leverage it: Create learning experiences that are as close to real work challenges as possible. One way to do this is to reframe quiz questions as scenarios. Rather than asking a learner, “What’s the first step in design thinking?” ask, “As a design thinker, what’s the first step you should take towards solving X problem?” It’s the difference between a driver’s ed student reading the owner’s manual vs. playing a videogame that simulates what it’s like behind the wheel.

Cognitive Bias #4: The primacy and recency effects

Take a page from Hollywood and end every training with a strong finish.

What it is: The Primacy and Recency Effects state that we remember beginnings and ends more than middles.

How to apply it:  On the topic of public speaking, Winston Churchill encouraged people to begin strongly and end dramatically. That’s great advice for creating training too. Try to open every learning experience with an aha moment: a story, example, analogy, or curious fact that hooks the learner emotionally from the jump. Then finish out each experience with a clear, strong, and inspiring call to action that prompts the learner to immediately apply what they’ve learned.

Cognitive Bias #5: The spacing effect

What it is: The Spacing Effect states that learning works better when it’s spread out over time, rather than crammed into a single session.

How to apply it: One great way to apply this bias is by blending in-person training with microlearning. Before an in-person session, prime your learners with a series of microlearning lessons on the topic they’ll be learning about. Then, after the live event, follow-up with additional microlearning experiences to reinforce and further develop the content taught during the training session.

Work with brains, not against them.

Cognitive biases aren’t going anywhere anytime soon—they’re part of the human condition, so we might as well embrace them. Start making the most of these ideas by trying them out at your own organization and reporting your results in the comments below.