15th December 2018

Neon Elephant Award Announcement

Dr. Will Thalheimer, President of Work-Learning Research, Inc., announces the winner of the 2018 Neon Elephant Award, given to Clark Quinn for writing the book Millennials, Goldfish & Other Training Misconceptions: Debunking Learning Myths and Superstitions, and for his many years advocating for research-based practices in the workplace learning field.

Click here to learn more about the Neon Elephant Award…

 

2018 Award Winner – Clark Quinn, PhD

Clark Quinn, PhD, is an internationally-recognized consultant and thought-leader in learning technology and organizational learning. Dr. Quinn holds a doctorate in Cognitive Psychology from the University of California at San Diego. Since 2001, Clark has been consulting, researching, writing, and speaking through his consulting practice, Quinnovation (website). Clark has been at the forefront of some of the most important trends in workplace learning, including his early advocacy for mobile learning, his work with the Internet Time Group advocating for a greater emphasis on workplace learning, and his collaboration on the Serious eLearning Manifesto to bring research-based wisdom to elearning design. With the publication of his new book, Clark again shows leadership—now in the cause of debunking learning myths and misconceptions.

Clark is the author of numerous books, focusing not only on debunking learning myths, but also on the practice of learning and development and mobile learning. The following are representative:

In addition to his lifetime of work, Clark is honored for his new book on debunking the learning myths, Millennials, Goldfish & Other Training Misconceptions: Debunking Learning Myths and Superstitions.

Millennials, Goldfish & Other Training Misconceptions provides a quick overview of some of the most popular learning myths, misconceptions, and mistakes. The book is designed as a quick reference for practitioners—to help trainers, instructional designers, and elearning developers avoid wasting their efforts and their organizations’ resources in using faulty concepts. As I wrote in the book’s preface, “Clark Quinn has compiled, for the first time, the myths, misconceptions, and confusions that imbue the workplace learning field with faulty decision making and ineffective learning practices.”

When we think about how much time and money has been wasted by learning myths, when we consider the damage done to learners and organizations, when we acknowledge the harm done to the reputation of the learning profession, we can see how important it is to have a quick reference like Clark has provided.

Clark’s passion for good learning is always evident. From his strategic work with clients, to his practical recommendations around learning technology, to his polemic hyperbole in the revolution book, to his longstanding energy in critiquing industry frailties and praising great work, to his eLearning Guild participatory leadership, to his editorial board contributions at eLearn Magazine, and to his excellent new book; Clark is a kinetic force in the workplace learning field. For his research-inspired recommendations, his tenacity in persevering as a thought-leader consultant, and for his ability to collaborate and share his wisdom, we in the learning field owe Clark Quinn our grateful thanks!

 

 

Click here to learn more about the Neon Elephant Award…

You won’t believe what a vendor said about a speaker at a conference—when that speaker spoke the truth.

 

Conferences are big business in the workplace learning field.

Conferences make organizers a ton of money. That’s great because pulling off a good conference is not as easy as it looks. In addition to finding a venue and attracting people to come to your event, you also have to find speakers. Some speakers are well-known quantities, but others are unknown.

In the learning field, where we are inundated with fads, myths, and misconceptions; finding speakers who will convey the most helpful messages, and avoid harmful messages, is particularly difficult. Ideally, as attendees, we’d like to hear truth from our speakers rather than fluff and falsehoods.

On the other hand, vendors pay big money to exhibit their products and services at a conference. Their goal is connecting with attendees who are buyers or who can influence buyers. Even conferences that don’t have exhibit halls usually get money from vendors in one way or another.

So, conference owners have two groups of customers to keep happy: attendees and vendors. In an ideal world, both groups would want the most helpful messages to be conveyed. Truth would be a common goal. So for example, let’s say new research is done that shows that freep learning is better than traditional elearning. A speaker at a conference shares the news that freep learning is great. Vendors in the audience hear the news. What will they do?

  • Vendor A hires a handsome and brilliant research practitioner to verify the power of freep learning with the idea of moving forward quickly and providing this powerful new tool to their customers.
  • Vendor B jumps right in and starts building freep learning to ensure their customers get the benefits of this powerful new learning method.
  • Vendor C pulls the conference organizers aside and tells them, “If you ever use that speaker again, we will not be back; you will not get our money any more.”

Impossible you say!

Would never happen you think!

You’re right. Not enough vendors are hiring fadingly-good-lookingly brilliant research-to-practice experts!

Here’s a true story from a conference that took place within the last year or so.

Clark Quinn spoke about learning myths and misconceptions during his session, describing the findings from his wonderful book. Later when he read his conference evaluations he found the following comment among the more admiring testimonials:

“Not cool to debunk some tools that exhibitors pay a lot of money to sell at [this conference] only to hear from a presenter at the conference that in his opinion should be debunked. Why would I want to be an exhibitor at a conference that debunks my products? I will not exhibit again if this speaker speaks at [conference name]” (emphasis added).

This story was recounted by Clark and captured by Jane Bozarth in an article on the myth of learning styles she wrote as the head of research for the eLearning Guild. Note that the conference in question was NOT an eLearning Guild conference.

What can we do?

Corruption is everywhere. Buyer beware! As adults, we know this! We know politicians lie (some more than others!!). We know that we have to take steps not to be ripped off. We get three estimates when we need a new roof. We ask for personal references. We look at the video replay. We read TripAdvisor reviews. We look for iron-clad guarantees that we can return products we purchased.

We don’t get flustered or worried, we take precautions. In the learning field, you can do the following:

  • Look for conference organizers who regularly include research-based sessions (scientific research NOT opinion research).
  • Look for the conferences that host the great research-to-practice gurus. People like Patti Shank, Julie Dirksen, Clark Quinn, Mirjam Neelen, Ruth Clark, Karl Kapp, Jane Bozarth, Dick Clark, Paul Kirschner, and others.
  • Look for conferences that do NOT have sessions—or have fewer sessions—that propagate common myths and misinformation (learning styles, the learning pyramid, MBTI, DISC, millennials learn differently, people only use 10% of their brains, only 10% of learning transfers, neuroscience as a panacea, people have the attention span of a goldfish, etc.).
  • If you want to look into Will’s Forbidden Future, you might look for the following:
    • conferences and/or trade organizations that have hired a content trustee, someone with a research background to promote valid information and cull bad information.
    • conferences that point speakers to a list of learning myths to avoid.
    • conferences that evaluate sessions based on the quality of the content.

Being exposed to false information isn’t just bad for us as professionals. It’s also bad for our organizations. Think of all the wasted effort—the toil, the time, the money—that was flushed down the toilet trying to redesign all our learning to meet the so-called learning-styles approach. Egads! If you need to persuade your management about the danger of learning myths you might try this.

In a previous blog post, I talked about what we can do as attendees of conferences to avoid learning bad information. That’s good reading as well. Check it out here.

Who Will Rule Our Conferences? Truth or Bad-Faith Vendors?

That’s a damn good question!

 

 

This is my preface to Clark Quinn’s book on debunking the myths in the learning field, Millennials, Goldfish & Other Training Misconceptions: Debunking Learning Myths and Superstitions. (available from Amazon here).

Clark Stanley worked as cowboy and later as a very successful entrepreneur, selling medicine in the United States that he made based on secrets he learned from an Arizona Hopi Indian medicine man. His elixir was made from rattlesnake oil, and was marketed in the 1890’s through public events in which Stanley killed live rattlesnakes and squeezed out their oil in front of admiring crowds. After his medicine gained a wide popularity, Stanley was able to set up production facilities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island with the help of a pharmacist. Stanley made himself a rich man.

You may not know his name, but you’ve certainly heard of his time and place. It was the era of patent medicines—false and sometimes dangerous elixirs sold to men and women of all stripes. Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root. Oxien. Kickapoo Indian Sagwa. Dr. Morse’s Indian Root Pills. Enzyte. Bonnore’s Electro Magnetic Bathing Fluid. Radithor. Liquozone. And of course, Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment.

These medicines were bought by the millions. Fortunes were made. Millions of people were bamboozled, made sick, killed or murdered depending on how you see it. It turns out that, upon being tested, Stanley’s elixir was found to be made mostly from mineral oil, a worthless potion sold by a charlatan. His story of the medicine man and the rattlesnake juice was a more potent concoction than his famous elixir, which when tested was found to have no snake oil anyway.

What causes men and women to miss the truth, to fail to see, to continue happily in harming themselves and those around them? This, unfortunately, is not a question just for the era of patent medicines. It is eternal. It goes back to the dawn of humanity and continues today as well. I have no answer except to assume that our credulity is part of our humanity—and should guide us to be on guard at all times.

What stopped the patent-medicine pandemic of poison, persuasion, and placebo? Did we the people rise up on our own and throw out the scoundrels, the money-grubbers, the snake-oil salesmen? Did we see that we were deceived, or too hopeful, or too blind? Did we as a community heed our senses and find a way to overcome the dangers hidden from us?

No! We did not!

It was not a mass movement back to rationality and truth that saved us. It was the work of a few intrepid agitators who made all the difference. Journalists began reporting on deaths, sicknesses, and addictions resulting from the use of patent medicines. In 1905, Collier’s Weekly published a cover story that exploded the industry. Written by Samuel Hopkins Adams a former crime reporter, with the title, “The Great American Fraud: The Patent Medicine Evil,” the long expose contained sections with headings like, “Medicine or Liquor?”, “The Men Who Back the Fake,” “Absolutely False Claims,” “Drugs that Deprave,” “Prescribing Without Authority,” and “Where the Money Goes.”

The article—or series of articles that today we would call investigative journalism—opened the floodgates and led directly to the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, followed later by additional regulations and requirements that continue to this day, with some success, protecting our health and safety.

The ugly truth is that we need help in seeing what we don’t see. This is true too in the learning industry and has been true since at least the early 1900’s when thought leaders in our industry floated bogus claims that people remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see, et cetera. Indeed, it was partly the bogus claims floating around the learning industry in the late 1990’s that made me optimistic that starting a research-based consulting practice would find an audience, that perhaps the learning field could be protected from snake oil charlatans.

Bogus claims are not merely inert flotsam to be navigated around. At a minimum, they take attention away from learning practices that are more fundamental and effective, pushing us to waste time and resources. More insidious is that they proactively cause harm, hurting learners and weakening our learning outcomes.

I wish I could report that starting Work-Learning Research twenty years ago has had the influence that Samuel Hopkins Adams had in his journalism. Alas, I am a faint voice in the howling wind of our industry. Fortunately, there are many muckraking research-to-practice practitioners today, including folks like Paul Kirschner, Patti Shank, Guy Wallace, Pedro De Bruyckere, Julie Dirksen, Donald Clark, Ruth Clark, Mirjam Neelen, Jane Bozarth, and more. There are also legions of academic researchers who do the science necessary to enable research-to-practice wisdom to be compiled and conveyed to trainers, instructional designers, elearning developers and learning executives.

I am especially optimistic now that Clark Quinn has compiled, for the first time, the myths, misconceptions, and confusions that imbue the workplace learning field with faulty decision making and ineffective learning practices. As Clark rightly advises, don’t read the book in one sitting. You will find it too much—too many misconceptions and malingering falsehoods, and too much heartache to think that our field could tolerate so much snake oil.

Here’s what we don’t realize. Today’s workplace-learning snake oil is costing us billions of dollars in wasted effort, misspent resources, ill-advised decisions, and distraction from the science-of-learning fundamentals that have proven to be effective! Every time a trainer reads an article on learning styles and adjusts his or her training to make it suitable for visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and olfactory learners; time is wasted, money is spent, and learning is hurt. Every time an instructional designer goes to a conference and hears that neuroscience should guide learning design, he or she takes this faulty meme back to colleagues and infects them with false hope and ineffective learning strategies. Every time a Chief Learning Officer hears that learning events should be shrunk to 4-minute microlearning videos, that storytelling is everything, that all learning is social, that virtual reality is the future of learning—every time our learning executives jump on a bandwagon and send us to training or conferences or hire experts in these multitudinous fascinations—we are diverted from the veritable essence of learning. We waste our own developmental budgets with snake-oil rostrums. We waste time organizing ourselves around wrong-headed initiatives. We ignore what really works, all the while costing our organizations billions of dollars in waste and ineffective learning practices.

Let us start anew today. We can begin with Clark’s book. It is a veritable treasure chest of wisdom. But let’s keep going. Let’s stay skeptical. Let’s look to the scientific research for knowledge. Let’s become more demanding and knowledgeable ourselves, knowing that we all have more to learn. Let’s look to the research translators who know the work that we do as instructional designers, trainers, and developers. Let’s do our own testing. Let’s improve our evaluation systems so that we get better feedback day by day. Let’s pilot, rework, improve, and continue to learn!

As the history of patent medicine shows, we must be forever vigilant against our own blindness and against those who will sell us the miraculous hope of snake-oil cure-alls.

The Debunker Club, with over 600 members devoted to squashing the myths in the learning field, is offering a FREE webinar with noted author and learning guru Dr. Clark Quinn on myths and misconceptions in the learning field, based on his new book, just released last month, Millennials, Goldfish & Other Training Misconceptions: Debunking Learning Myths and Superstitions. (available from Amazon here).

DATE:

  • June 6th

TIME:

  • 10AM (San Francisco, USA)
  • 1PM (New York, USA)
  •  6PM (London, UK)
  • 10:30PM (Mumbai, India)
  • 3AM June 7th (Sydney, Australia)

REGISTER NOW:

In San Diego on Tuesday Morning May 8th at 7AM!

With Special Guest! (Revealed Below)

ATD is holding its annual conference starting this weekend in San Diego. On Tuesday morning (May 8), I’m going to convene us debunkers for a brief social gathering over coffee at Copa Vida, just a few short blocks from the San Diego Convention Center.

Come join me for coffee and caffeinated conversation…just for the fun of it.

We had a great gathering at the ISPI conference in Seattle a few weeks ago. Great conversation, friendly, low key, just a little debunking. Let’s do it again!

JOIN the GATHERING:

  • 7AM to 7:50AM
  • At Copa Vida,
    Ninth is the nearest cross street.
  • Feel free to join whether you’re attending the ATD conference or not…
  • Look for me, Will Thalheimer

Special Guest at our gathering:

Clark Quinn, author of the brand new debunking book:

Millennials, Goldfish & Other Training Misconceptions: Debunking Learning Myths and Superstitions

Conferences can be beautiful things—helping us learn, building relationships that help us grow and bring us joy, prompting us to see patterns in our industry we might miss otherwise, helping us set our agenda for what we need to learn more fully.

 

Conferences can be ugly things—teaching us myths, reinforcing our misconceptions, connecting us to people who steer us toward misinformation, echo chambers of bad thinking, a vendor-infested shark tank that can lead us to buy stuff that’s not that helpful or is actually harmful, pushing us to set our learning agenda on topics that distract us from what’s really important.

Given this dual reality, your job as a conference attendee is to be smart and skeptical, and work to validate your learning. In the Training Maximizers model, the first goal is ensuring our learning interventions are built from a base of “valid, credible content.” In conferences, where we curate our own learning, we have to be sure we are imbibing the good stuff and avoiding the poison. Here, I’ll highlight a few things to keep in mind as you attend a conference. I’ll aim to make this especially relevant for this year, 2018, when you are likely to encounter certain memes and themes.

Drinking the Good Stuff

  • Look for speakers who have a background doing two things, (1) studying the scientific research (not opinion research), and (2) working with real-world learning professionals in implementing research-based practices.
  • If speakers make statements without evidence, ask for the evidence or the research—or be highly skeptical.
  • If things seem almost too good to be true, warn yourself that learning is complicated and there are no magic solutions.
  • Be careful not to get sucked into group-think. Just because others seem to like something, doesn’t necessarily make it good. Think for yourself.
  • Remember that correlation does not mean causation. Just because some factors seem to move in the same direction doesn’t mean that one caused the other. It could be the other way around. Or some third factor may have caused both to move in the same direction.

Prepare Yourself for This Year’s Shiny Objects

  • Learning Styles — Learning Styles is bogus, but it keeps coming up every year. Don’t buy into it. Learn about it first. The Debunker.Club has a nice post on why we should avoid learning styles. Read it. And don’t let people tell you that learning styles if bad but learning preferences is good. They’re pulling the wool.
  • Dale’s Cone with Percentages — People do NOT remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they read, 30% of what they see (or anything similar). Here’s the Internet’s #1 URL debunking this silly myth.
  • Neuroscience and Learning — It’s a very hot topic with vendors touting neuroscience to entice you to be impressed. But neuroscience at this time has nothing to say about learning.
  • Microlearning — Because it’s a hot topic, vendors and consultants are yapping about microlearning endlessly. But microlearning is not a thing. It’s many things. Here’s the definitive definition of microlearning, if I must say so myself.
  • AI, Machine Learning, and Big Data — Sexy stuff certainly, but it’s not clear whether these things can be applied to learning, or whether they can be applied now (given the state of our knowledge). Beware of taking these claims too seriously. Be open, but skeptical.
  • Gamification — We are almost over this fad thankfully. Still, keep in mind that gamification, like microlearning, is comprised of multiple learning methods. Gamification is NOT a thing.
  • Personalization — Personalization is a great idea, if carried out properly. Be careful if what someone calls personalization is just another way of saying learning styles. Also, don’t buy into the idea that personalization is new. It’s quite old. See Skinner and Keller back in the early 1900’s.
  • Learning Analytics — There is a lot of movement in learning evaluation, but much of it is wrong-headed focus on pretty dashboards, and a focus only on business impact. Look for folks who are talking about how to get better feedback to make learning better. I’ll tout my own effort to develop a new approach to gathering learner feedback. But beware and do NOT just do smile sheets (said by the guy who wrote a book on smile sheets)! Beware of vendors telling you to focus only on measuring behavior and business results. Read why here.
  • Kirkpatrick-Katzell Four-Level Model of Evaluation — Always a constant in the workplace learning field for the past 60 years. But even with recent changes it still has too many problems to be worthwhile. See the new Learning-Transfer Evaluation Model (LTEM), a worthy replacement.

Wow! So much to be worried about.

Well, sorry to say, I surely missing some stuff. It’s up to you to be smart and skeptical at the same time you stay open to new ideas.

You might consider joining the Debunker Club, folks who have agreed on the importance of debunking myths in the learning field.

This is a guest post by Brett Christensen of Workplace Performance Consulting (www.workplaceperformance.ca/)

In this post, Brett tells us a story he recounted at a gathering of Debunker Club members at the 2018 ISPI conference in Seattle. It was such a telling story that I asked him if he would write a blog post sharing his lessons learned with you. It’s a cautionary tale about how easy it is to be fooled by information about learning that is too good to be true.

One thing to know before you read Brett’s post. He’s Canadian, which explains two things about what you will read, one of which is that he uses Canadian spellings. I’ll let you figure out the other thing.

______________________________

How I Was Fooled by Dale’s Cone

Why do we debunk?

A handful of members of the Debunker Club had the rare opportunity to meet in person on the morning of 09 April 2018 at the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in sunny (sic) Seattle prior to the second day of the International Society of Performance Improvement’s (ISPI) annual conference.

After introducing ourselves and learning that we had a “newbie” in our midst who had learned about the meeting from a friend’s re-tweet (see Networking Power on my blog), Will asked “Why do you debunk?” I somewhat sheepishly admitted that the root cause of my debunking desires could be traced back to a presentation I had done with a couple of colleagues in 2006 which was very early in my training and performance career. This was before I had discovered ISPI and before I understood and embraced the principles of evidence-based practice and scientific rigour.

We were working as e-Learning Instructional Designers (evangelists?) at the time and we were trying hard to communicate the benefits of e-Learning when it was designed correctly, which as we all know includes the design of activities that assist in transfer of learning. When we discovered Dale’s Cone – with the bad, bad, bad numbers, it made total sense to us. Insert foreboding music here.

The following image is an example of what we had seen (a problematic version of Dale’s Cone):

One of many bogus versions of Dale’s Cone

Our aim was to show to our training development colleagues that Dale’s Cone (with the numbers) was valid and that we should all endeavour to design activity into our training. We developed three different scenarios, one for each group. One group would read silently, one would read to each other out loud, and the last group would have an activity included. Everyone would then do a short assessment to measure transfer. The hope (Hypothesis? Pipe Dream?) was to show that the farther down the cone you went, the higher the transfer would be.

Well! That was not the outcome at all. In fact, if I remember correctly, everyone had similar scores on the exercise and the result was the exact opposite of what we were looking for. Rather than dig deeper into that when we got back home, we were on to the next big thing and Dale’s Cone faded in my memory. Before I go on, I’d like to point out that we weren’t total “hacks!” Our ISD process was based on valid models and we applied Mayer and Clark’s (2007) principles in all our work. We even received a “Gold e-Learning Award” award from the Canadian Society for Training Development, now the Institute for Performance and Learning (I4PL)

It wasn’t until much later, after being in ISPI for a number of years, that I had gotten to know Will, our head debunker, and read his research on Dale’s Cone! I was enlightened and a bit embarrassed that I had been a contributor to spreading bad “ju-ju” in the field. But hey – you don’t know what you don’t know. A couple of years after I found Will and finished my MSc, he started The Debunker Club. I knew I had to right my wrongs of the past and help spread the word to raise awareness of the myths and fads that continue to permeate our profession.

That’s why I am a debunker. Thank you, Will, for making me smarter in the work I do.

______________________________

Will’s Note: Brett is being much too kind. There are many people who take debunking very seriously these days. There are folks like De Bruyckere, Kirschner, Hulshof who wrote a book on learning myths. There is Clark Quinn who’s new debunking book is being released this month. There is Guy Wallace, Patti Shank, Julie Dirksen, Mirjam Neelen, Ruth Clark, Jane Bozarth, and many, many, many others (sorry if I’m forgetting you!). Now, there is also Brett Christensen who has been very active on social media over the last few years, debunking myths and more. The Debunker Club has over 600 members and over 50 people have applied for membership in the last month alone. And note, you are all invited to join.

Of course, debunking works most effectively if everybody jumps in and takes a stand. We must all stay current with the learning research and speak up gently and respectfully when we see bogus information being passed around.

Thanks Brett for sharing your story!! Most of us must admit that we have been taken in by bogus learning myths at some point in our careers. I know I have, and it’s a great reminder to stay humble and skeptical.

And let me point out a feature of Brett’s story that is easy to miss. Did you notice that Brett and his team actually did rigorous evaluation of their learning intervention? It was this evaluation that enabled Brett and his colleagues to learn how well things had gone. Now imagine if Brett and his team hadn’t done a good evaluation. They would never have learned that the methods they tried were not helpful in maximizing learning outcomes! Indeed, who knows what would have happened when they learned years later that the Dale’s Cone numbers were bogus. They might not have believed the truth of it!

Finally, let me say that Dale’s Cone itself, although not really research-based, is not the myth we’re talking about. It’s when Dale’s Cone is bastardized with the bogus numbers that it became truly problematic. See the link above entitled “research on Dale’s Cone” to see many other examples of bastardized cones.

Thanks again Brett for reminding us about what’s at stake. When myths are shared, the learning field loses trust, we learning professionals waste time, and our organizations bear the costs of many misspent funds. Our learners are also subjected to willy-nilly experimentation that hurts their learning.

 

 

I’ve been at the helm of Work-Learning Research, Inc. for almost 20 years. Ever since I began to have a following as a research-to-practice consultant, I’ve been approached by vendors to “research” their products. A great majority who approach me are basically asking me to tell the industry that their products are good. I tell these vendors that I don’t do that kind of “research,” but if they want a fair, honest, and research-based evaluation of their product for their own benefit—advice not for public consumption but for their own feedback and deliberations—I can do that for them. Some take me up on this, but most don’t.

I recently got another request and I thought I’d share what this looks like (I’ve removed identifying information):

Vendor:

I’m reaching out as the co-founder of [GreatNewCompany], a [high-tech blankety-bling] platform. We’re trying to create a product that [does incredibly wonderful things to change the world of learning].

I wanted to ask if you’d consider reviewing our product? I know you’ve spoken to [this industry luminary about such-and-such] and wondered if this was an area of research you’d planned to do more work in?

A free account has access to almost all features but is just limited to [25] unique recipients [https URL generously offered]. If you need more access to perform a comprehensive review or have any questions then please let me know.

I understand that this isn’t a small ask as it’d take a decent amount of your time but thought I’d see if you found us interesting.

Gentleman Researcher/Consultant:

I do review products, but not for public consumption. I do it to provide feedback to developers, not for marketing purposes.

My cost is [such-and-such] per hour.

Let me know if you’re interested.

Vendor:

Thanks for letting me know – it’s appreciated.

We’d be interested in some consultancy on helping raise awareness of our product and to better reach more customers. We’re not sure if we’re just failing at marketing or whether our product just doesn’t have the broad appeal. Do you think you’d be a good fit helping us with that?

Thanks.

Gentleman Researcher/Consultant:

It’s a crazy market now, with lots of new entries. Very hard to gain visibility and traction.

I don’t schlep for others. I run a high-integrity consultancy here. SMILE.

One recommendation I make is to actually do good research on your product. This helps you to learn more and it gives you something to talk about in your content marketing efforts. A way to stand above the screaming crowd.

I can help you with high-integrity research, but this usually costs a ton…

Vendor:

Hi Will,

Thanks again for the thoughts, sounds like we’re a bad fit for the kind of consultancy that we need so I appreciate you being open about that.

Cheers!

THE END

A happy ending?

================

Conclusions:

  • Be careful when you hear about product endorsements. They may be paid for.
  • Remember, not all communications that are called “research” are created equal.
  • Look for consultants who can’t be bought. You want valid advice not advice tilted toward those who pay the consultants.
  • Look for vendors who tell true stories, who honestly research their products, who learn from their experience.
  • Be skeptical of communications coming out of trade associations when those messages are paid for directly or indirectly (through long commercial association between the vendor and the association).
  • Be even more skeptical of best-in-industry lists where those listed pay to be listed. Yes! These exist!
  • In general, be skeptical and look to work with those who have integrity. They exist too!

 

An exhaustive new research study reveals that the backfire effect is not as prevalent as previous research once suggested. This is good news for debunkers, those who attempt to correct misconceptions. This may be good news for humanity as well. If we cannot reason from truth, if we cannot reliably correct our misconceptions, we as a species will certainly be diminished—weakened by realities we have not prepared ourselves to overcome. For those of us in the learning field, the removal of the backfire effect as an unbeatable Goliath is good news too. Perhaps we can correct the misconceptions about learning that every day wreak havoc on our learning designs, hurt our learners, push ineffective practices, and cause an untold waste of time and money spent chasing mythological learning memes.

 

 

The Backfire Effect

The backfire effect is a fascinating phenomenon. It occurs when a person is confronted with information that contradicts an incorrect belief that they hold. The backfire effect results from the surprising finding that attempts at persuading others with truthful information may actually make the believer believe the untruth even more than if they hadn’t been confronted in the first place.

The term “backfire effect” was coined by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler in a 2010 scientific article on political misperceptions. Their article caused an international sensation, both in the scientific community and in the popular press. At a time when dishonesty in politics seems to be at historically high levels, this is no surprise.

In their article, Nyhan and Reifler concluded:

“The experiments reported in this paper help us understand why factual misperceptions about politics are so persistent. We find that responses to corrections in mock news articles differ significantly according to subjects’ ideological views. As a result, the corrections fail to reduce misperceptions for the most committed participants. Even worse, they actually strengthen misperceptions among ideological subgroups in several cases.”

Subsequently, other researchers found similar backfire effects, and notable researchers working in the area (e.g., Lewandowsky) have expressed the rather fatalistic view that attempts at correcting misinformation were unlikely to work—that believers would not change their minds even in the face of compelling evidence.

 

Debunking the Myths in the Learning Field

As I have communicated many times, there are dozens of dangerously harmful myths in the learning field, including learning styles, neuroscience as fundamental to learning design, and the myth that “people remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see…etc.” I even formed a group to confront these myths (The Debunker Club), although, and I must apologize, I have not had the time to devote to enabling our group to be more active.

The “backfire effect” was a direct assault on attempts to debunk myths in the learning field. Why bother if we would make no difference? If believers of untruths would continue to believe? If our actions to persuade would have a boomerang effect, causing false beliefs to be believed even more strongly? It was a leg-breaking, breath-taking finding. I wrote a set of recommendations to debunkers in the learning field on how best to be successful in debunking, but admittedly many of us, me included, were left feeling somewhat paralyzed by the backfire finding.

Ironically perhaps, I was not fully convinced. Indeed, some may think I suffered from my own backfire effect. In reviewing a scientific research review in 2017 on how to debunk, I implored that more research be done so we could learn more about how to debunk successfully, but I also argued that misinformation simply couldn’t be a permanent condition, that there was ample evidence to show that people could change their minds even on issues that they once believed strongly. Racist bigots have become voices for diversity. Homophobes have embraced the rainbow. Religious zealots have become agnostic. Lovers of technology have become anti-technology. Vegans have become paleo meat lovers. Devotees of Coke have switched to Pepsi.

The bottom line is that organizations waste millions of dollars every year when they use faulty information to guide their learning designs. As a professional in the learning field, it’s our professional responsibility to avoid the danger of misinformation! But is this even possible?

 

The Latest Research Findings

There is good news in the latest research! Thomas Wood and Ethan Porter just published an article (2018) that could not find any evidence for a backfire effect. They replicated the Nyhan and Reifler research, they expanded tenfold the number of misinformation instances studied, they modified the wording of their materials, they utilized over 10,000 participants in their research, and they varied their methods for obtaining those participants. They did not find any evidence for a backfire effect.

“We find that backfire is stubbornly difficult to induce, and is thus unlikely to be a characteristic of the public’s relationship to factual information. Overwhelmingly, when presented with factual information that corrects politicians—even when the politician is an ally—the average subject accedes to the correction and distances himself from the inaccurate claim.”

There is additional research to show that people can change their minds, that fact-checking can work, that feedback can correct misconceptions. Rich and Zaragoza (2016) found that misinformation can be fixed with corrections. Rich, Van Loon, Dunlosky, and  Zaragoza (2017) found that corrective feedback could work, if it was designed to be believed. More directly, Nyhan and Reifler (2016), in work cited by the American Press Institute Accountability Project, found that fact checking can work to debunk misinformation.

 

Some Perspective

First of all, let’s acknowledge that science sometimes works slowly. We don’t yet know all we will know about these persuasion and information-correction effects.

Also, let’s please be careful to note that backfire effects, when they are actually evoked, are typically found in situations where people are ideologically inclined to a system of beliefs for which they strongly identify. Backfire effects have been studied most of in situations where someone identifies themselves as a conservative or liberal—when this identity is singularly or strongly important to their self identity. Are folks in the learning field such strong believers in a system of beliefs and self-identity to easily suffer from the backfire effect? Maybe sometimes, but perhaps less likely than in the area of political belief which seems to consume many of us.

Here are some learning-industry beliefs that may be so deeply held that the light of truth may not penetrate easily:

  • Belief that learners know what is best for their learning.
  • Belief that learning is about conveying information.
  • Belief that we as learning professionals must kowtow to our organizational stakeholders, that we have no grounds to stand by our own principles.
  • Belief that our primary responsibility is to our organizations not our learners.
  • Belief that learner feedback is sufficient in revealing learning effectiveness.

These beliefs seem to undergird other beliefs and I’ve seen in my work where these beliefs seem to make it difficult to convey important truths. So let me clarify and first say that it is speculative on my part that these beliefs have substantial influence. This is a conjecture on my part. Note also that given that the research on the “backfire effect” has now been shown to be tenuous, I’m not claiming that fighting such foundational beliefs will cause damage. On the contrary, it seems like it might be worth doing.

 

Knowledge May Be Modifiable, But Attitudes and Belief Systems May Be Harder to Change

The original backfire effect showed that people believed facts more strongly when confronted with correct information, but this misses an important distinction. There are facts and there are attitudes, belief systems, and policy preferences.

A fascinating thing happened when Wood and Porter looked for—but didn’t find—the backfire effect. They talked with the original researchers, Nyhan and Reifler, and they began working together to solve the mystery. Why did the backfire effect happen sometimes but not regularly?

In a recent podcast (January 28, 2018) from the “You Are Not So Smart” podcast, Wood, Porter, and Nyhan were interviewed by David McRaney and they nicely clarified the distinction between factual backfire and attitudinal backfire.

Nyhan:

“People often focus on changing factual beliefs with the assumption that it will have consequences for the opinions people hold, or the policy preferences that they have, but we know from lots of social science research…that people can change their factual beliefs and it may not have an effect on their opinions at all.”

“The fundamental misconception here is that people use facts to form opinions and in practice that’s not how we tend to do it as human beings. Often we are marshaling facts to defend a particular opinion that we hold and we may be willing to discard a particular factual belief without actually revising the opinion that we’re using it to justify.”

Porter:

“Factual backfire if it exits would be especially worrisome, right? I don’t really believe we are going to find it anytime soon… Attitudinal backfire is less worrisome, because in some ways attitudinal backfire is just another description for failed persuasion attempts… that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to change your attitude. That may very well just mean that what I’ve done to change your attitude has been a failure. It’s not that everyone is immune to persuasion, it’s just that persuasion is really, really hard.”

McRaney (Podcast Host):

“And so the facts suggest that the facts do work, and you absolutely should keep correcting people’s misinformation because people do update their beliefs and that’s important, but when we try to change people’s minds by only changing their [factual] beliefs, you can expect to end up, and engaging in, belief whack-a-mole, correcting bad beliefs left and right as the person on the other side generates new ones to support, justify, and protect the deeper psychological foundations of the self.”

Nyhan:

“True backfire effects, when people are moving overwhelmingly in the opposite direction, are probably very rare, they are probably on issues where people have very strong fixed beliefs….”

 

Rise Up! Debunk!

Here’s the takeaway for us in the learning field who want to be helpful in moving practice to more effective approaches.

  • While there may be some underlying beliefs that influence thinking in the learning field, they are unlikely to be as strongly held as the political beliefs that researchers have studied.
  • The research seems fairly clear that factual backfire effects are extremely unlikely to occur, so we should not be afraid to debunk factual inaccuracies.
  • Persuasion is difficult but not impossible, so it is worth making attempts to debunk. Such attempts are likely to be more effective if we take a change-management approach, look to the science of persuasion, and persevere respectfully and persistently over time.

Here is the message that one of the researchers, Tom Wood, wants to convey:

“I want to affirm people. Keep going out and trying to provide facts in your daily lives and know that the facts definitely make some difference…”

Here are some methods of persuasion from a recent article by Flynn, Nyhan, and Reifler (2017) that have worked even with people’s strongly-held beliefs:

  • When the persuader is seen to be ideologically sympathetic with those who might be persuaded.
  • When the correct information is presented in a graphical form rather than a textual form.
  • When an alternative causal account of the original belief is offered.
  • When credible or professional fact-checkers are utilized.
  • When multiple “related stories” are also encountered.

The stakes are high! Bad information permeates the learning field and makes our learning interventions less effective, harming our learners and our organizations while wasting untold resources.

We owe it to our organizations, our colleagues, and our fellow citizens to debunk bad information when we encounter it!

Let’s not be assholes about it! Let’s do it with respect, with openness to being wrong, and with all our persuasive wisdom. But let’s do it. It’s really important that we do!

 

Research Cited

Nyhan, B., & Reifler, J. (2010). When corrections fail: The persistence of political misperceptions.
Political Behavior, 32(2), 303–330.

Nyhan, B., & Zaragoza, J. (2016). Do people actually learn from fact-checking? Evidence from a longitudinal study during the 2014 campaign. Available at: www.dartmouth.edu/~nyhan/fact-checking-effects.pdf.
Rich, P. R., Van Loon, M. H., Dunlosky, J., & Zaragoza, M. S. (2017). Belief in corrective feedback for common misconceptions: Implications for knowledge revision. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 43(3), 492-501.
Rich, P. R., & Zaragoza, M. S. (2016). The continued influence of implied and explicitly stated misinformation in news reports. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 42(1), 62-74. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xlm0000155
Wood, T., & Porter, E. (2018). The elusive backfire effect: Mass attitudes’ steadfast factual adherence, Political Behavior, Advance Online Publication.