Human Cognition is More Reactive Than You Think


In today’s New York Times there is a great article, Who’s Minding the Mind?, by BENEDICT CAREY that sums up a large number of research studies on human cognition that show that human beings are more reactive than we might think. We tend to believe that we, as human beings, are very proactive and consciously in control of our thoughts and actions; but these studies show that much of what we do and think is due to hard-wired, often unconscious processes.

For example, the article cites how sitting near a briefcase (as opposed to a backpack) can make people more competitive. Or as Carey writes:

New studies have found that people tidy up more thoroughly when there’s a faint tang of cleaning liquid in the air; they become more competitive if there’s a briefcase in sight, or more cooperative if they glimpse words like “dependable” and “support” — all without being aware of the change, or what prompted it.

This basic fact about human behavior is relevant to the learning and performance field, of course. One of the things I’ve talked about for years is the notion of "spontaneous remembering." If we create learning right, we’re more likely to help our learners—when they’re on the job at a later time—by helping them spontaneously trigger memories of what they’ve learned. We can do this best by requiring our learners to utilize realistic cues in the learning context in making real-world decisions and taking real-world actions. This is why simulations are so effective (if they are well designed).

When learners process learning objectives or prequestions before encountering learning material, the learners are primed to pay attention to relevant learning material. It’s not necessarily a conscious process, but it works.

There are many examples available, but here’s another point: The learner-centric movement of the 1990’s and 2000’s has relied too heavily on the notion that the learners always know best, and that they are in conscious control of their learning and we just need to let them make the best decisions.

When we realize that our learners are more deterministically driven than the we want to believe (its about free will a little, isn’t it?), we have more work to do if we really want to drive maximum performance. Even when our clients consciously want to do something, we may be able to help them reach their goals by setting up learning and performance situations that unconsciously trigger the behavior they want to achieve.