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Learning & Development Blog

Cognitive Biases in Learning

Cognitive Bias in Learning: An Overview

What Are Cognitive Biases?

Our brains receive non-stop input from all five senses every moment we are awake. In the face of this enormous amount of daily input, our brains develop subconscious coping mechanisms that we can use to quickly make daily decisions. Cognitive biases result when these coping mechanisms fail. Put simply, a cognitive bias is an error in the way we think.

In 1986, it was calculated that the average person was taking in information equivalent to forty 85-page newspapers each day. By 2011, this had increased to 175 newspapers worth of information each day. You can be sure that number is even higher today in 2019.

If we had to sort through all the information we take in every day just to make a simple decision, about where to have dinner for example, we just might starve in the process.  So, in order to cope with so much input, we develop subconscious mental shortcuts so we can make all the quick decisions needed to navigate our daily lives.

These mental shortcuts are called heuristics. Heuristics are essentially the brain’s way of automating repetitive tasks/decisions. For example, if you’re familiar with manufacturing, you know that the best tasks and processes to automate are those that are either very consistent, or very low risk. There are rules in place that these automated systems follow, and as long as the rules are not broken you will have a positive outcome every time.

But, automated systems don’t handle exceptions that break the rules very well. If someone loads the labels upside-down in the labeling machine, you might end up with 1200 jars with the upside-down labels by the time you realized there was a problem. The same is true for our brains.

What are heuristics

Exceptions can cause irrational errors in our decision-making process, causing our heuristics to lead us to fail. A cognitive bias results when a heuristic fails to deliver the correct decision.

To reach a greater understanding of the relationship between heuristics and cognitive biases, let’s consider two scenarios. In both of these scenarios, you will be given a short list of personality traits describing a person you have never met. Then you will be asked to use that information make a judgement about their profession. 

Consider the following scenario: Carol is quiet, calm, intelligent, and helpful. From this information would you consider her most likely to be a librarian, a police officer, or a bartender?

For the second scenario: Mary is loud, opinionated, intelligent, and self-sufficient. From this information would you consider her most likely to be a lawyer, an activist, or an elementary school teacher?

Many conclude that Carol is a librarian and Mary is an activist.

In considering these scenarios, we used a heuristic and a cognitive bias. In this case, it was the Representativeness Heuristic or Bias. When we use the Representativeness Heuristic, we estimate the likelihood of an event or outcome by comparing it to an existing prototype that already exists in our minds.

Representativeness led us to two different outcomes, one correct and one incorrect. If you decided that Carol must be a librarian, you are correct. Her characteristics of being quiet, calm, intelligent, and helpful fit well with our assumptions about librarians, much better than they fit with the professions of police officer or bartender.

If you decided that Mary is an activist, you are incorrect. In reality, Mary is an elementary school teacher. In both cases, we really didn’t have enough information to reliably make a judgement about profession. But since we were asked to make a judgement, we applied our rule-of-thumb which led us to the correct assumption in one case and the incorrect assumption in the other.

This is an example of one cognitive bias out of 188 that have been identified in psychology. Not all of these biases will impact learning, but we’re going to focus on some that might.

List of cognitive biases

So, how do cognitive biases impact learning? First we will identify four common goals of learning. Then, we will look at some of the negative effects of cognitive biases and how to mitigate them. Finally, we will discuss how to make biases work for you and not against you.

Why Should We Care About Cognitive Biases?

Cognitive biases can be both useful and detrimental to learning. They matter to us because they can make learners and designers resistant to incorporating new information, they can result in learners remembering inaccurate information, or they can prevent learning from happening altogether.

It is impossible for a person to become completely unbiased and it would probably be counter-productive to become so. But in those cases when biases keep us from considering new ideas and being open to learning, it’s best to hold a mirror to up to ourselves and to our learners so we can continue to grow and create effective learning experiences that are new and exciting for our learners.

Generally speaking any learning objective that you define can be classified under one of four learning goals. As instructional designers, we’re seeking:

  1. Behavior change

  2. Performance improvement

  3. Retention/recall

  4. Critical thinking/problem solving

For each of these learning goals, there are a number of biases that can negatively impact progress toward that goal. I’ve listed a few here for you to see, but for today we’ll discuss one negative bias for each goal and examine a scenario you might encounter in training. Then we’ll discuss how triggering another bias might have a positive impact and/or mitigate the effects of the negative bias.

Status Quo Bias

1. Impact of Cognitive Biases on Behavior Change

First, let’s look at an example of how cognitive biases can negatively and positively impact a learning goal that requires behavior change.

A few years ago we worked with a manufacturing client who was implementing a new time-reporting system in all of their warehouses and manufacturing facilities. The company had already piloted the system in one of their locations, but the results of the pilot were surprising, and not in a good way. While the new system proved to be exactly what was needed from a reporting and payroll perspective, they were surprised by the level of resistance they received from the workers. The plant happened to be one of their oldest facilities and a good portion of the staff had been there since the beginning and were now within a few years of retirement. They were unhappy about having to change routines they had done for 30 or more years in some cases, and they certainly didn’t want to learn how to use a new system.

The Status Quo bias is defined as the tendency to want things to stay relatively the same. The plant workers saw changes coming and immediately started displaying resistance behaviors due to this bias. Because of this, it took much longer than the company had hoped to implement the system during the pilot, and they didn’t want that experience to repeat itself at other locations. We brought in a small team to design a training and change management program to mitigate this problem at the remaining sites.

Ikea Effect Bias

After some meetings and interviews, we determined that the Status Quo bias had been hard at work during the pilot. In order to counteract that bias at other locations, we chose to use the IKEA Effect as one way to counteract maintaining the status quo. The IKEA Effect is the tendency for people to place a disproportionately high value on things that they partially assembled themselves, such as furniture from IKEA, regardless of the quality of the end result. To trigger this positive cognitive bias in our learners, we created an activity in which small groups created their own quick reference card and added to it throughout the course. Once the training at a location was completed, workers voted on the best quick reference card out of all of the small groups. This card was then distributed to everyone at the location. The winners were given a small prize and their card was entered into a final corporate level competition for best card. The program was well received and the level of resistance as each location was significantly lower than it had been at the pilot location.

Parkinsons Law of Triviality

2. Impact of Cognitive Biases on Performance Improvement Goals

There are some biases that undermine performance improvement goals, and there are other biases that can support those same performance improvement goals. Let’s take a look at an example that illustrates this.

A few years ago, we were brought in to assist with training design and development for a large university that was implementing PeopleSoft financials. The project included a complete overhaul of the University’s extensive chart of accounts. But, the team working on that part of the project was already four months behind schedule, seven months into a two-year project. The delay was caused by a lack of agreement and ongoing arguments among department representatives. We were asked to sit in on a couple of the team’s working sessions in order to provide recommendations about how the team could start to build consensus and move the project forward.

It was obvious after observing a session that the team was falling victim to Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, which is the tendency to give disproportionate weight to trivial issues. For example, one department representative might insist that a special account was needed just for that department and would not compromise. This caused other department representatives to follow suit until they were all at a complete standstill.

Authority Bias

Since this problem was unlikely to resolve itself, we recommended that the Project Manager bring in the highest level project stakeholder that she could get to come in and talk to the group. The Project Manager was quite resourceful and brought in the Chancellor of the University to the very next meeting to talk to the group about the goals of the project and how it was time to put aside differences and work together strategically to create a new chart of accounts that had a usable, straightforward structure with enough flexibility to provide for future growth.

The team took the hint and started making forward progress again almost immediately. By bringing in the University Chancellor, the PM triggered the Authority Bias. This is the tendency to attribute greater accuracy to the opinion of an authority figure (unrelated to its content) and be more influenced by that opinion. The team took the Chancellor’s message to heart and started making the compromises needed to finish the project.

Continued Influence Bias

3. Impact of Cognitive Biases Related to Learning Retention & Recall

There are many biases related to learning retention and recall, but in this example we’re going to talk about how the Continued Influence Effect can impact learners.

One of our colleagues found herself wasting a lot of time redoing a particular form each week. She had been trained to fill out the form one way, but the form owner recently corrected an error and my colleague needed to change her entry in a single field. That sounded easy enough, but she had been doing the form each week for quite some time, and her entries were basically automatic. Now she found herself making the wrong entry in that corrected field but not realizing her mistake until after she submitted the form. She had even submitted the form in error twice some weeks as she got distracted at the wrong time. She was experiencing the Continued Influence Effect. This is the tendency to believe previously learned misinformation even after it has been corrected.

Humor Effect Bias

She was able to use the Humor Effect to get out of her rut. The Humor Effect says that humorous items are more easily remembered than non-humorous ones. To apply this, she needed to think of a funny story or joke or silly song about that field on her form and repeat it in her head as often as possible over the next week. She was happy to report later that she had correctly filled out her form the next week and that multiple form submissions were finally a thing of the past.

Law of the Instrument

4. Impact of Cognitive Biases on Critical Thinking & Problem Solving

To examine our final learning goal of critical thinking and problem solving, let’s take a look at ourselves as educators or trainers.

It can be all too easy to fall into a rut with our own critical thinking or problem solving. Let’s look at the Law of the Instrument. This bias means we may be over-reliant on a familiar tool or method, thereby ignoring or undervaluing alternative approaches. The saying for this bias goes, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

Like with all heuristics, it’s easier to just take the mental shortcut and do it that way. But, as we’ve shown, it’s not always helpful. Consider these questions. Do you always use PowerPoint presentations for training? Are you so comfortable building your slides and presenting them, that you haven’t considered blended learning? Have you considered that eLearning, video, or performance support may be of more value to your learners in some situations? It could be time to do an audit of your “instruments” to see if you’re over-reliant on one tool to the point of detriment.

Zeigarnik Effect

If you do find yourself stuck in a training rut, the Zeigarnik Effect is one cognitive bias you may want to employ to counteract the Law of the Instrument. The Zeigarnik Effect tells us that uncompleted or interrupted tasks are remembered better than completed ones. It can help you to experiment with new tools and methods by giving you permission not only to fail, but also to move on to the next thing as soon as you realize it. You can use this to your advantage by running quick tests, experiments or performances and interrupting them before their natural conclusion. The details of each of these happenings with be more accurately remembered which will allow you to more easily compare your results.

You can then bring your most successful experiments into the classroom or your eLearning to quickly to help both you and your learners break patterns and climb out of ruts in training.

How to Make Cognitive Biases Work for You

Simply put, biases exist and can undermine learning. But they can also work for you.

First, we need to recognize bias in ourselves and others. Then, we can also learn how to trigger more helpful biases.

To help you become familiar with the various cognitive biases that can undermine our four learning goals and also the biases that can be used to mitigate those negative impacts, we’ve developed a set of 40 Cognitive Bias Cards, color coded by learning goal. For each of the four learning goals you will find ten cards that impact that learning goal.

Cognitive Bias Cards

The full set of Cognitive Bias Cards is available for you to download here so you can work on identifying additional biases that specifically affect learning.

The Cognitive Bias Cards will help you to become familiar with biases in each of the four areas of learning, so you can learn how to identify and address them. And, mix and match cognitive biases that negatively impact learning with mitigating biases. With these cards in hand, you’ll be well on your way to using cognitive biases to your advantage.


This piece was originally developed as a webinar. To watch the webinar with its full set of slides and audio, click here.