Brain as Prediction Machine

So I’m really interested right now in how the brain operates as a prediction machine. Basically, one of our core brain functions seems to be guessing what is going to happen next.

I think this has some really fascinating implications for behavior change.  Humans are (in many ways) bad at risk prediction.  More people seem to be afraid of flying than driving, despite data that shows the riskiest part of any flight is the drive to the airport. We are often more afraid of things that are scary than things that are likely — sedentary behavior is far more likely than bungee jumping to injure us, but we probably wouldn’t rate sitting on the couch as more risky than jumping off a bridge attaching to a giant rubber band.

Classic behaviors that are difficult to change include things like diet, exercise, smoking, texting while driving.  In workplace contexts, I might look at safety procedures or sanitary food handling.  All of these activities involve some assessment of the risk involved and some prediction of outcomes, either consciously or unconsciously.

Here are some interesting things I’ve been looking at regarding this:

How your brain hallucinates your conscious reality by Anil Seth:

How our brains use embodied simulation to construct meaning: (from Benjamin Bergen’s book Louder Than Words)


How even the structure of our vision is structured around predicting the immediate future from Mark Changizi:

This is another explanation of how vision is a constructed function (the rest of his talk covers similar ground to the Anil Seth talk):

Here’s a closer look at the image he is describing:

Here’s a good talk on Risk Literacy from Gerd Gigerenzer:

Emily Pronin et al found that people make different choices for their future selves, and that the decisions they make for their future selves are more like the decisions they might make for other people — we essentially have a “do as I say, not as I do” relationship with our future selves:

Similarly, seeing pictures of your aged self can impact your retirement planning:

Image of the scientist and his artificially aged self

While some of this is not immediately translatable into practical applications for learning and development, it does seem that construction of reality and future prediction is an important part of meaning-making and decision-making, which in turn impacts choices and behaviors.


Behavior Research Links

So, I was just talking to someone interesting in doing user research for behavior change, and I put together a set of links for her.  I thought it was a useful list, so also posting it here:

This is a nice collection of resources about UX User Research, including a list of people to follow:

An Elearning Design Reading List


Several things have led to me actually writing a blog post.  First, I’m home for two whole weeks straight (this alone is a small miracle).  I’m also relatively up to date with my inbox and to do list (much larger miracles). I’m also indulging in some productive procrastination (which is probably the real reason).

Anyway, I typically keep a list of resources when I teach the ATD (ASTD) Advanced Instructional Design for Elearning Certificate, and I keep thinking that I should put the list somewhere.  So here it is:

Blogs et al:


Software Tools:

  • Branchtrack and Versal  – two interesting new elearning tools — can’t fully endorse them as they are still beta-ish, but interesting to look at.
  • Quandary Examples – a free (and unsupported) tool for making branched learning games.

Research-based Resources

Behavioral Economics


Anything by Kathy Sierra

The “I can’t believe I forgot…” Add-ons

Updated — some new books that have come out since I originally wrote this post:


Social Norms -or- Hey, What are they doing over there?

I’m working on a change management presentation, and have been looking for some of the social norms research – especially at the practice of using messages that help people understand that the majority of the group is already doing the desired behavior.

Before I close the tabs, I thought I’d collect the most interesting links here (that’s all I have time for today!).


Wikipedia entry (which defines it, and rightly points out that outcomes are uneven for this approach) –

Environmental behaviors and social norms (This is a nice summary paper of using social norms in environmental campaigns, influencing behaviors like littering) –

Thermostats with social feedback (This is one of the actual papers on this pretty widely known example) –

Social norms and teen smoking (And feet. An interesting television commercial aimed at social norms and teen smoking) –

Social norms and tax compliance (using a general appeal vs a social norm appeal to improve tax compliance) –

More social norms and tax compliance (HBR article, though you need registration/subscription to see the whole thing) –

Social norms and binge drinking (a write up of one of the earlier studies that looked at perceived and actual norms for college students’ drinking behaviors) –


Webcast: Using the Psychology of Games for Learning

I should have posted this a few days ago, but I’m doing a webcast tomorrow (Wednesday May 15th, 1pm ET) for ASTD on using the psychology of game design for learning.  Talking about some familiar stuff (flow, hyperbolic discounting) and a few new things (visceral feedback).  Not sure if you need to be an ASTD member to attend, but I *think* you can just sign up:


Why I don’t like WIIFM

This is excerpted and expanded from a post that I wrote for the Tin Can blog 

We’ve talked about WIIFM (What’s in it for me?) for years – it’s one of those things you always hear that you need to include in learning experiences to persuade your learners to pay attention.


I’ve started to think that’s a really unsatisfactory view of the world – most of the people I know don’t need a sales pitch to do their jobs, or to learn something to help them do that. Instead, they need to know that the thing they are learning is actually useful and necessary.

One of my favorite studies is this one from Dan Ariely called Man’s search for meaning: The case of Legos.

The paper starts with a discussion of meaning and work:

“Most children think of their potential future occupations in terms of what they will be (firemen, doctors, etc.), not merely what they will do for a living. Many adults also think of their job as an integral part of their identity. At least in the United States, “What do you do?” has become as common a component of an introduction as the anachronistic “How do you do?” once was, yet identity, pride, and meaning are all left out from standard models of labor supply.”

The paper goes on to explain “we view labor as meaningful to the extent that (a) it is recognized and/or (b) has some point or purpose.”

They did two actual experiments — one where they had participants do a word problem exercise, and a second where participants were constructing figures with legos.


All the participants were paid money for their efforts, but some of the participants had their papers shredded as soon as they were done (without anyone even looking at the page), or their lego figures immediately broken back up in front of them (I particularly love that they labeled this last instance as the “Sisyphean” condition).


You can read the details here, but essential, people worked significantly longer or for less money in the condition where their work wasn’t meaningless. That shouldn’t be the case if people where primarily motivated by what they could get out of the situation (i.e. $$$). Dan Pink talks about several similar studies in his book Drive, when he talks about the importance of autonomy, mastery and purpose.

So, my issue with WIIFM is that, while it probably doesn’t hurt to let people know about the benefits of something, it’s not really a complete answer.

How about WCIDWT?

I think we should talk about WCIDWT (What can I do with that?).  If I have the knowledge or skill that you are trying to teach me, what will I be able to do that I couldn’t before?

Kathy Sierra talks about this when she compares old school marketing (“Buy this because we kick ass”) vs a focus on the user (“Buy this because we want you to kick ass”). What can *you* (the end-user) do to be more awesome, to know more and to do more.

I’ve been playing around with the idea of accomplishment-based learning — using accomplishments as the fundamental organization of content and learning experiences, so that the very structure of the course is about learners accomplishing thing (*real* accomplishments – not finish-the-lesson or pass-the-test accomplishments).  For example which photoshop course would you rather take?


So, my issue with WIIFM is that it feels transactional — I’m trying to *buy* your attention by waving shiny things, when instead it should be about your goals, and what you can do. WIIFM also feels disrespectful of learners for those same reasons.

Thoughts? Opinions? Examples? Violent disagreement? Would love to hear about it in the comments below.

A few things going on

So, I’ve had a crazy spring so far — between a brutal travel schedule and some unexpected health stuff (all resolved now), there’s barely been time to draw breath.

There have been lots of good things, including some interesting projects in the works.  A particular good thing recently was a really nice review of the book by Clive Shepherd:

There’s book a I’ve been meaning to write which I hoped would address the problem. I tentatively called it ‘What every L&D professional needs to know about learning’ (not so catchy I know). But I’ve been beaten to the gun by Julie Dirksen.” – Clive Shepherd

Still giddily fanning myself a bit over that…

For local folks (Minneapolis/St. Paul area), there are a few things going on also:

On Thursday (April 12th, 2012), I’m doing the Design for Behavior Change talk for the local UPA (Usability Professionals Association) chapter.  The event starts at 6:15 PM, and the talk starts at 6:45 PM.  You can get details here

Also, the fantastic Connie Malamed (author of Visual Language for Designers and is in town this week, so check out her talk on Friday:

Your Brain on Graphics: Research-Inspired Design, Friday April 13th

Information here: (you can also get details about her 1/2 day workshop at that link)

Program Details: Learning through visuals opens up new pathways in the brain. You can optimize opportunities for visual learning and provide better learning experiences when you understand how people perceive and process visual information. During this presentation, you will learn how graphics can leverage the strengths and compensate for the weaknesses of our cognitive architecture. You’ll learn how to make design decisions based on research. We’ll look at lots of examples in the process. Topics include: * How our brains are hardwired for graphics * How to speed up your visual message * How to make graphics cognitively efficient * How to speak to the emotions through visuals * How to visualize abstractions This presentation is for anyone who selects, conceives of, designs or creates visuals or anyone interested in visual communication.

Location: The Metropolitan, 5418 Wayzata Boulevard, Golden Valley, MN 55418 When: 8:30-11am

(She also wrote a very nice review of the book, btw)

Love these: Mental Notes

So, still need a gift for the design geek on your holiday shopping list?*

I’ve mentioned Stephen Anderson before (I’m a big ol’ fan), but I particularly love his Mental Notes cards, which cover dozens of psychology principles that impact how we design. Need to jump start your design process?  Pull a few cards out the deck, and talk about how you can incorporate those ideas.

You can order them here:

I particularly mention it now because (aside from the fact that these are awesome) Stephen is donating half the proceeds right now.

* Yes, I know it’s a little late to order holiday presents (story of my life), but you can print some sample cards to use a placeholder gift until the real ones arrive.

Decision Fatigue

Check out this fantastic article on decision fatigue in the New York Times.  It addresses a lot of things I’ve been interested in lately, like blood sugar levels and self-control. I think this is a really useful topic for learning folks to be aware of, because we frequently ask our learners to exert self-control to stay focused and concentrate on the subject matter being taught.