At my previous post at PwC, I had the privilege of leading a learning-focused design thinking session. We were bringing together leaders from a key business unit, learning strategists, and a number of learning and development production staff to brainstorm one of the largest annual training programs in the organization. Getting everyone on the same page could have been a challenge. There were many differing opinions and approaches that had played out over the years, each with an equally valid perspective and motivation. I needed to rally everyone under a single motivating vision.
I started by asking a simple question: “When was a time in your life that you learned something that stuck with you?” It wasn’t long before stickies started to cover the window at the far end of the boardroom. As I shared them aloud, some were based on critical mistakes that were made in youth and corrected with help from a mentor. Others were hilariously disastrous moments in parenting. Word to the wise: never leave for a road trip without an ample supply of pullups. I’ll leave it at that. On and on, as the stickies were read, each one aligned with an important failure, embarrassment, extremely uncomfortable and/or cringe-worthy circumstance. Each left a lasting impression and the motivation to learn from the moment and, in most instances, not repeat it.
This exercise illustrated a critical point—our most memorable events often deviate from the norm. The regular and mundane quickly blend into one another and are lost in a sea of memory. Beyond being unique, most examples given were, if not purely negative, undesirable at the least. Why did I want to point this out? If our aim is to create learning events that will be memorable and motivate behavior change in our learners, we must be willing to take risks and allow bad things to happen to our learners (only in the training, of course).
Now, the entire room was deeply pondering how we could lean on this revelation to shape our approach to designing this learning curriculum. To be clear, my motivation was not to create a training stick to bludgeon our learners. Rather, it was to open our teams to the idea that we should be willing to introduce and explore the negative consequences of our actions if we want to encode the information to our learners. But looking deeper, why are we impacted so greatly when bad things happen? Are people just pessimistic by nature? Should we just chill out and look for the silver lining?
Nope, like it or not, that’s your default setting, my friend. You see, our brains are wired to pay more attention to negative experiences than positive ones. This bias is deeply ingrained in our biological responses to the world around us. In early nomadic, hunter/gatherer societies, survival hinged on our ability to spot threats and dangers, so it makes sense that we focus more on the panther than the pansy. Let’s get into the details.
In 1998, researchers at Ohio State University conducted a study in which participants were shown a series of pictures, ranging from positive images like ice cream and a Ferrari to negative ones such as a dead cat and a mutilated face. They observed significantly higher electrical activity in response to the negative pictures, supporting the idea of what’s known as negativity bias. The study showed that our attitudes and behavior are more strongly influenced by negative stimuli. Additionally, we tend to remember negative experiences for longer than positive ones.
Understanding this bias offers a unique opportunity in the realm of Learning Experience (LX) design. It’s in moments of unease, when we step out of our comfort zones, that our brains undergo remarkable transformations and learn. That is what I wanted my team to understand and coalesce around.
A surprising catalyst for deeper learning
In his book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? Seth Godin wrote, “Discomfort brings engagement and change. Discomfort means you’re doing something that others were unlikely to do because they’re hiding out in their comfort zones. When your uncomfortable actions lead to success, the organization rewards you and brings you back for more.”
Stepping into the unknown or uncomfortable triggers a profound response in our brains, leading to heightened engagement and priming our minds for more effective learning. One can almost see embracing discomfort as an invitation to accelerated growth. As LX designers, we have the power to craft experiences that tap into discomfort-driven learning. By strategically incorporating challenges and unfamiliar (yet contextually relevant) scenarios, we create environments where learners are compelled to grapple with new concepts. During the process, learners gain a deeper understanding and enhanced retention.
The role of failing fast and failing forward
Discomfort and failure are closely linked. I’m sure we can all identify with the feeling of being faced with a situation that is uncomfortable precisely because there is a high chance of failure. But, like discomfort, it’s through failing forward that we glean some of our most profound insights.
When we make a mistake, there is a spike in negative electrical activity at the top of the brain and a strong emotional impact. The cortex detects the error and sends an alert signal to other parts of the brain, which focuses our attention on decreasing the likelihood of making another, or the same, mistake. It’s almost like the mind goes into hyperdrive when reacting to the negative. Conversely, when something goes well, less analysis is required since everything worked out.
By reframing failure as a natural part of the learning journey, we empower learners to extract valuable lessons and forge a path toward success. Failure will bring them closer to their goals if they choose to respect it for the lessons it teaches them and apply those lessons to future efforts.
Incorporating discomfort and failure in LX design
In today’s digital age, we have a wealth of tools at our disposal to create immersive learning experiences that can transport learners into unfamiliar territory, stimulating their brains in ways traditional methods cannot. With technology and human-centered design, we can amplify the impact of discovery-driven learning.
In our experience, we’ve found that the questions and challenges that cause learners to debate and discuss create the most memorable learning. Mild dilemmas with easily discoverable answers, on the other hand, don’t maximize impact or retention. In post-simulation assessments, we’ve also noticed that retention improves after learners make an undesirable or incorrect decision. Of course, for the learning to be effective, this mistake must be immediately followed by feedback and rationale for the better choice, which enables them to fail forward instead of falling flat. In addition, not every scenario or question should be uncomfortably challenging; it’s important to strike a balance so that learners don’t lose heart.
Who’s ready to get uncomfortable?
Discomfort and negativity bias have an essential role to play in transformative learning. Instead of shying away from these types of experiences, good LX design is able to draw out the benefits of our innate human responses to maximize learning retention—without alienating or demotivating the learner.
Modern LX shifts the focus from content-centric approaches to human-centered, goal-oriented learning experiences that lead to better learning outcomes. If you’re looking for help creating immersive learning experiences with transformative outcomes, reach out to the Blueline team.