I Knew It All Along! : Cognitive Bias and Instructional Design

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Instructional Design CompanyI’ve long been fascinated by cognitive biases. Like warped mirrors, these thought processes distort our perceptions and skew our decision-making. Psychologists tell us that common cognitive biases include confirmation bias—unwittingly failing to notice data contrary to our beliefs, while noting the sources that confirm them; or fundamental attribution error, in which we associate negative behaviors in others with their personalities, while attributing our own negative behaviors to a situation. For example, I walk away from an argument thinking Jane is a jerk—but me? I was rude because I was provoked.

When we’re influenced by these biases, we make decisions that seem rational, but really aren’t. And there’s the rub. When I make the wrong decisions in anger, I’m likely to look back later, in my “right mind,” and correct my error. But when I’m skewed by cognitive biases, I’ll have trouble ever seeing my error in the first place.

In the instructional design community, I wonder if at times we unintentionally limit our training through a related form of cognitive bias, called in-group thinking. This bias happens when we unintentionally favor our own group while ignoring or dismissing “outsiders.” Surprisingly, this bias occurs regularly even when we have almost no reason to think the other group is different from us.

Now bear with me as I leave the idea of bias for just a moment (I’ll get back to it shortly), but lately at Allen we’re hearing from smart professionals everywhere who are struggling to reach learners who have burned out on standard training solutions. For answers, many of us have looked to new authoring platforms, instructional design models, or analytical tools (and there certainly can be value here). But maybe we stop short. Maybe our in-group biases sometimes prevent us from considering a broader solution set that could improve results, engagement, and, at times, even reduce costs and training time.

Consider, for example, the lessons corporate trainers might learn from consumer education, where we see innovation in branding, user experience design, and layering of support tools, just to name a few. There’s so much there that could inform, say, a big compliance push. Going a bit further, what might we learn from marketers struggling to cut through the clutter, mobile game developers competing to build the most rewarding user interactions, or UX designers working on an interactive menu?

At Allen, I admire the way our design teams have learned from adjacencies to build highly successful curricula that include approaches not typically considered in custom training—things like interactive infographics to provide high-impact data delivery, Facebook-style game-badging systems to foster social learning, marketing-style motion designs, and change management toolkits that emphasize successful reference habit-building over comprehensive knowledge “transfer.”

Ultimately, I think there’s much to be gained by accepting that other types of professionals are successfully dealing with challenges similar to ours, and if we know how to look, we can learn from them (just as they can from us). And best of all: Much research shows that our cognitive biases, once recognized, can be mitigated.

And that takes me to the last form of bias I’ll mention here—hindsight bias—which happens when, encountering something different or new, we convince ourselves that we knew it all along. Few things can bring as much delight as making a new connection, putting two things together to create something new, but to get to that point, we have to admit that we don’t know it all yet, work past our innate biases, and look outward as much as inward for innovation and inspiration.



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