Facepalm 01

How many times have we heard this from our clients looking for a training solution? Even more likely, how often have we thought it regarding our clients, learners, close friends, and family members?

As you all know, I have a fascination with the process of human cognition and naturally gravitate to discussions on the topic. Last week on NPR there was a story about the disparity between how well established the theory of evolution is and the resistance in certain populations to accept it as true. I’m not interested in discussing evolution, but I do find it interesting that someone looked at the idea of why people are resistant to certain ideas.

The conclusion of the article intimated that individuals with a stronger intuitive response than others “are likely to experience a stronger pull toward purposive thinking, a greater aversion to uncertainty and other cognitive preferences at odds with evolution. If their intuitive responses are generally stronger, they’re also less likely to succeed in overriding them by engaging in analytic or reflective thought.”  The article favors sociological factors as a strong influence on this aversion to reflective thought.

The part that caught my eye was the discussion on cognitive styles, particularly those who need to live in a world that makes sense versus those who are able to be comfortable with ambiguity and chaos. From my anecdotal observations, people who gravitate to various religious persuasions seem to have common cognitive styles. My mom has always been a “fish out of water” type in the Baptist denomination but is much happier now as a Presbyterian. We’ve discussed this at length, and I’m sure she would be in agreement that a good bit of her current comfort level is that she is surrounded by people who may or may not agree with her, but they tend to approach things from a common starting point and deal with it using common methods.

I have seen a phenomenon repeated in venues outside of religious thought such as the chemistry lab where an individual will enter the environment with a set of beliefs based on their upbringing, tradition, and education. They encounter a set of beliefs that contradicts their understanding and they are fiercely resistant to it. At this point, there are a number of options:

  • They can walk away and not deal with the difference
  • They can maintain their personal belief and “suffer in silence”
  • They can attempt to persuade the others how wrong they are and convince them of the truth.
  • The fourth option – blandly accepting the alternative explanation without the blink of an eye – never seems to happen.

Most often arguments ensue. Passionate arguments. Heated. And then an amazing thing happens. Most often, the person will have an “Ah ha!” moment and assent to the new truth, abandoning the old understanding and suddenly becoming a vocal proponent of the new system. I have seen this happen too many times to count. This phenomenon of sudden insight continues to fascinate me. It’s like a switch turns on or a sudden sharpening of focus and “everything makes sense.” It happened to me when I was struggling in physics class. After one particularly harrowing all-nighter preparing for a quiz, something “clicked” and from then on the class was easy. The cognitive psychologist in me attributed it to forming a cognitive structure where I was finally able to make sense of the class in a way that was meaningful for me.

If I were to summarize this, I would suggest that an inherent barrier to learning is our inability to “make sense” of the information we are presented with. It doesn’t fit our current cognitive structure or deeply ingrained belief system or whatever we want to call it, so we either reject it outright, suffer in silence, or try to argue it away. Occasionally, although I’ve never seen it happen, we nod semi-passively, and say, “Sure. Whatever you say,” accepting something that seems to contradict our fundamental understanding of the world. The solution, it would seem according to the NPR article, is more information and more analytic thought. So how do we get people to think analytically? And this is where the arguments come in. They are a process that forces promoters of opposing ideas to engage in considered thought, reflection, and analysis in order to convince the other person of what’s right.

As instructional designers, we should be prepared to face resistance to new ideas, particularly if they contradict established ways of doing or understanding things. I think one of the things we can do to foster reflective thought is to create activities that encourage healthy debate. In formal debate, the competitors have to know the arguments for both sides because they are not told which side they are arguing for until they arrive. We can create activities similar to this where participants have to:

  • Find objections and counters to the new idea – the objections for them are probably easy, but getting them to brainstorm the counters might engage them in some analytical thinking.
  • Five Whys – Have participants brainstorm the reason why someone would support the new idea. Then ask why would that reason be so important. And continue on until the basis for the change is discovered. This can be followed up with “Five Why Nots?” in which they evaluate the objections to each of the whys.
  • What if? Scenarios – One of my favorite Monty Python lines is at the end of this sketch where the city slicker asks “Why not get rid of Harold?” The farmer objects to this by considering, “…the enormous commercial possibilities should he succeed.” Maybe the best thing we could do with our learners who are resistant to analytical and reflective thinking due to deeply held cognitive patterns is to invite them to consider the possibilities if the problem idea succeeds.