Tag Archives: psychology

2 Fundamental Reasons Why People Don’t Like Change

fear of change

I grew up in a traditional environment that had a strong bias against change. For example, the main social changes of the last 50 years were rejected, technological change was often deemed suspicious, and the good old days were definitely preferred to the depressing modern times.

But since then, I’ve noticed that this bias in favor of the status quo is strong everywhere. Granted, our world is changing faster than ever, but truth be told, only a handful of change agents are responsible for that.

People resist change for political, sociological and psychological reasons. Today I’ll dwell on the latter and show that resistance to change runs really deep.

Here are the two culprits responsible for this situation:

  1. Fear: Humans are hardwired to initially dislike unfamiliar stimuli
  2. Laziness: Humans use System 1 (an automatic mode of thinking) by default

First, people unconsciously prefer things for no other reason than their being familiar with those. This phenomenon is called the mere-exposure effect and has been studied extensively.

Of course, for our ancestors, this made sense. As the psychologist Gary Marcus says, what great-great-great-grandma knew and didn’t kill her was probably a safer bet than what she didn’t know. Similarly, those who stuck to the well known tended to outlast those ventured too far into uncharted territories.

Fear of the unknown and attachment to the familiar might once have helped us adapt, but now we’re stuck with this unconscious bias. This explains why incumbents are typically favored in an election, and why people often accept and even defend systems that truly threaten their self-interest (slavery, communism, apartheid, etc.).

Second, people instinctively rely on a cognitive process, System 1 (see my post on the topic), that discourages change.

Yes, we’re lazy and often prefer using heuristics (mental shortcuts) rather than deliberate thinking. For example, instead of analyzing the costs and benefits of a change, we’ll apply this simple rule: “If it’s in place, it must be working.”

This reliance on System 1 explains why we’re creatures of habit, and why it’s so hard to break away from routines and comfort zones. It’s true that habits increase efficiency, but they also impede improvement and innovation.

You can always change for the better; so be on the look out for those improvement opportunities. More than anybody else, peak learners must avoid inertia and embrace change.

People don’t naturally think like scientists (but peak learners should)

learners as scientists

One of my close friends definitely prefers “being right” than being accurate. He has lots of opinions and theories on everything, but if you show him evidence that contradicts one of them, he’ll put the full weight of his reasoning power to discount your evidence.

As it turns out, we’re all like him to a lesser or greater extent, and this flies in the face of the popular theory of discovery-based learning, which posits that students intuitively learn like scientists.

What does it mean to learn like a scientist?

It means you’re an active creator of your own learning, and you do this by

  1. exploring your environment,
  2. generating ideas about how things work,
  3. testing those ideas and
  4. changing your model accordingly.

In other words, scientific thinking is about coordinating evidence (things you observe) and theory (ideas about how those things work).

So, for people to think like scientists, they need at least to be able

  1. to distinguish theory and evidence and
  2. to update their theory in the light of new evidence.

As many studies have found, untrained people are bad at both.

After reading Researcher Deanna Kuhn’s study, you’ll indeed notice that people easily blur the difference between theory and evidence in everyday life.

Let me give you the simplest example. When you see people smile, you probably take this as evidence that they’re happy, right? But the thing is, you can’t see happy; happy is a theory. It may look like a safe theory, but it’s still a theory.

But even when theories don’t get confused with facts, shifting theories to match facts doesn’t come naturally for most people. As Lord, Ross and Lepper’s classic study showed, when they come across a fact that contradicts their theory, people will often ignore it or interpret it in a biased way (confirmation bias).

Of course, as evidence accumulates, people will eventually adjust their theory accordingly, but that process often occurs unconsciously; unlike scientists, people don’t actively review their models (Kuhn).

With information currently flowing from all directions, critical thinking is more needed than ever. But thinking like a scientist is an acquired skill, and a difficult one at that. And if you want to become a peak learner, you have no choice but to develop that skill.

The best first step you can take in that direction is to set your ego aside and ask yourself: “What would show me I’m wrong?”

Of The 3 Domains of Learning, Which One Is Yours?

bloom's three domains of learning

I’ve been going to that new coffee shop in my area, and this place has two doors side by side, but you can only open one of them because the other is kept locked. Each time I leave the building, do you know what happens? I go for the wrong door (on my left) even if I know it’s locked.

Doctor, why can’t I learn faster? Breaking stupid habits should be a piece of cake for peak learners, shouldn’t it?

The thing is, learning is a big concept that applies to many situations. Of course, it always involves some change or adaptation, but that’s about where the common denominator stops. So you can easily be a peak learner in one domain and an average joe in another.

As it turns out, all things learnable can be sorted out into three big domains. As the education expert Benjamin Bloom showed, you can either make a change in what you know, in what you feel, or in what you do.

In other words, learning can occur in:

  • the cognitive domain (head)
  • the affective domain (heart)
  • the psychomotor domain (hands)

The cognitive domain includes knowledge recall and mental skills; it’s really about things you learn in school. In my posts, I may seem to be biased toward this domain, but that’s because I’m a teacher and I can’t help it (sorry).

The affective domain involves emotions, attitudes and behaviors; so it covers everything from being aware of your environment to internalizing values that will determine the way you act. This domain is often overlooked, but it’s everywhere in your life.

The psychomotor domain is about manual and physical skills; so it includes manipulating objects and moving your body to perform tasks found in most jobs. Here, you learn by doing, either through imitation or mental representation, which often requires System 1 (see previous post).

Even if it’s possible to reach peak learning in solely one domain, try to take a holistic approach and get the three domains involved whenever you can.

Creating as many neural pathways as possible is the ultimate goal of peak learning.

The Two (Almost Opposite) Ways of Learning: System 1 and System 2

humans' dual cognitive processor

In my recent posts, I’ve insisted on the importance of deep thinking. I even said that there’s no peak learning without effective thinking.

Well, this is not exactly true.

In some cases, thinking can actually hamper your learning. The popular Malcolm Gladwell even wrote a whole book (Blink) to show that deliberate thinking often reduces performance.

Really? How can that be?

That’s because humans have two separate learning mechanisms, often called System 1 and System 2. In fact, this idea of a dual process is applied to many cognitive functions such as memory, attention, social cognition, reasoning and decision-making.

By the way, the prominent psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics for his research on this topic, which he summarized in Thinking, Fast and Slow.

System 1 is fast, automatic, intuitive and unconscious. It’s an old system based in the limbic system and shared by all animals. Thanks to this system, babies learn languages, you fine-tune your movements when playing a sport or musical instrument, and you update the map of your city without being aware of it.

System 2, on the other hand, is slow, effortful, logical and conscious. It’s located in the prefrontal cortex, and enables you, for instance, to learn foreign languages, change a behavior and operate a new machine.

Of course, we take pride of System 2, which has produced most of our culture, knowledge and expertise. In comparison, we often look down on system 1 as primitive and prone to error.

But brushing aside System 1 like I’ve done so far in this blog is wrong. This system is fast, powerful and most of the time reliable. Unlike System 2, it can process tons of information at the same time.

Many studies have shown that experts mostly rely on pattern recognition (S1) rather than analysis (S2) to solve typical problems. That’s why experienced doctors, chess masters and top football players are so quick at spotting the best solution, and that’s also why musicians’ and athletes’ performance suffers as soon as they start thinking about it.

In certain domains, peak learners need to move beyond academic learning, and turn their system-2 analytic skills into system-1 intuitive expertise.

3 Reasons Why Winning the Attention War Is Vital for Peak Learners

how to optimize attention span

The great deep-thinking blogger Cal Newport thinks he’s tough because he’s not on Facebook ;-). Get this, I don’t even have a cellphone or smartphone. I’m not saying never, but I can’t afford that thing just yet. It consumes too much attention.

For knowledge workers, attention is the most vital thing in the world.

If you can’t use your processing power (aka attention) strategically, you’ll never grow, professionally and personally.

When it comes to highlighting the upside of exercising your attention muscle, most bloggers point to the increase of general productivity. Obviously, if you can’t focus your attention on your goals, you can kiss them goodbye.

Today let’s go deeper and look at cognitive output. Sustained attention is the power that enables you to think deeply. In other words, elaborate mental operations are impossible if you can’t hold your attention and dismiss distractions.

But why should you care about deep thinking?

For three reasons. Deep thinking produces high value, enhances your learning capacity, and provides profound satisfaction.

Deep thinking is radically different from everyday rule-based thinking that allows you to function in the world and make a living. Only deep thinking can produce creative breakthroughs, paradigm shifts and solutions to complex problems. Simply put, deep thinking will turbo-charge your value (personal intellectual capital).

Deep thinking will also make you a better learner. As Cal explains in many posts, reaching expert level in anything requires deliberate practice, and deep thinking is the ultimate mental deliberate practice. The higher you get in Bloom’s learning taxonomy, the more demanding the cognitive activities become.

Finally, producing great insights and output won’t only advance your career, it will also provide you with a sense of worth. The feeling following fruitful cognitive effort is simply great.

But there’s bad news; most of us are losing the attention war (look at the length of my paragraphs). The average attention span is apparently contracting.

Let me finish with the good news though. You can easily learn to control your attention. Practice going deep on a topic in your head. Uninterrupted. This means every 8 seconds (the current average attention span) you need to make the conscious effort to stay on that topic.

If you can do that for one hour, you’ll hold one of the major keys to peak learning.

Why Rewards Aren’t Good for Learning

kids and rewards

I want my kids to become peak learners. So, I have them play creative games, do cognitive activities, and practice foreign languages.

And to get them fully on board, I’ve been using the magical power of rewards. I started with cute little stickers, then I moved to a token system, but now I’m giving cold, hard cash.

Is it yielding results? You bet it is! They’re hooked on it. Skinner was dead on the money. Rewards act as powerful reinforcers; they do increase the occurrence of behaviors.

So what’s the problem?

As it turns out, external rewards undermine autonomy and intrinsic motivation, which are the holy grail of lifelong learning. According to the self-determination theory, in order to persist in their learning, people need to feel in control; they’re also better at what they choose to do. Rewards do the opposite, as they basically tell you that someone wants you to do something.

For example, many studies have shown that when you give people a reward for an activity at one time, later they’re less likely to choose that activity over other options, and when they do, they don’t persist for very long.

I can see this with my kids. When I stop paying, sorry, rewarding them for their efforts, they wonder what is going on, and they don’t instinctively turn to puzzles and memory games afterwards.

So what’s the solution?

First, don’t discard rewards altogether. Incentives like grades and competitions are wonderful motivators and provide great feedback. What you want to do is make sure the learning continues after the exam, contest or bonus is gone.

How do you do that?

Boost the learner’s autonomy and sense of competence. For example, focus on his/her own happiness of doing well instead of yours, reduce monitoring, and offer as much choice as possible (when, where and what task to do).

You want to train peak learners and really ignite their desire to learn? Give them passion, not rewards.

Study Less and Learn More with the Spacing Effect

how to optimize studying

Today I’m going to answer the first and foremost question any learner has in mind.

What is the minimum amount of study time you need in order to score high on a test or a new task? 

This is exactly what I was wondering when I did my certificate in accounting. I had to know lots of rules and procedures with perfect accuracy, but I led a busy life, was efficiency-conscious, and had no intention of wasting precious time on unnecessary study.

First, you need to fully understand the power of the spacing effect, which the psychologist Frank Dempster called “one of the most remarkable phenomena to emerge from laboratory research on learning.”

The spacing effect says something we all intuitively know. With the same study time, you’ll remember more for longer if you learn your material a few times over a long period of time instead of repeatedly in a short period of time.

For example, a 1992 study showed that teaching third graders addition once a day for ten days was far more effective than twice a day for five days (Benedict Carey).

Now the real question is, what is the optimal learning schedule?

Intervals between your learning periods should be as long as possible to get the most of the spacing effect (i.e. the minimum number of repetitions), but short enough to make sure knowledge is still remembered.

According to the creator of SuperMemo, Piotr Wozniak, ever-expanding intervals are the most effective way to increase your knowledge. For example, you should review your material one day after your initial study, then a week later, then a month later and so on and so forth.

If you only have little time in front of you, you can’t afford this golden rule though.

In How We Learn, Benedict Carey presents this typical case. Let’s say you have a window of 15 days and 9 hours to spend on studying, here’s the optimal schedule:

  • 3 hours on day 1,
  • 3 hours on day 8,
  • 3 hours on day 14.

As a peak learner, it’s crucial to leverage the power of the spacing effect. This needs planning though. See when your deadline is and how much time you have for review or rehearsal. Then design the schedule leading to the best result.

Remember, efficiency means getting great results with the least time and effort.