Skip to main content

NogginLabs has joined EY.

Read the press release.
The information on this website is accurate through October 30, 2018. It has not been updated to reflect the transaction.
Ideas Weird Stuff

Fear and Learning

Fear affects our ability to learn new things. Can it actually help?

With Halloween just around the corner, I’ve been thinking about what exactly the holiday represents. Few other holidays have quite the same goofy, communal vibe that Halloween does. Between the ridiculous costumes, spooky display names on Twitter, and the return of the greatest Halloween icon of the 21st century, it’s hard not to be charmed by the way Halloween can bring everyone together in a sort of semi-ironic celebration of all things spooky.

But I think there’s something more there. While so many other holidays are rooted in positive emotions, like generosity, gratitude, or a steadfast love of trees, Halloween is focused on something darker: fear. The holiday has, of course, evolved a lot as it’s been borrowed, adapted, and re-borrowed by different people over the centuries. But in its modern incarnation, it’s a day when we readily celebrate the act of deliberately scaring each other—and ourselves.

That’s why I keep thinking about the power of fear. It’s motivated humans, for better or worse, throughout history. Ancient Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger once wrote, “We suffer more in imagination than in reality.”

If that’s true—if fear really does play off the friction between what we see in our imaginations and what we live in reality—then how does fear affect our ability to learn new things?

Fear helps us learn quickly and remember for a long time

Throughout nature, fear is an incredibly powerful motivating force. Whether it’s fear of a predator, fear of natural disasters, or fear of starvation, animals react strongly when threatened with something that they fear, even if they’ve only had limited exposure.

This idea, that fear affects our behavior, is the basis of a behavioral concept known as “fear conditioning.” Fear conditioning is the process by which we learn that a certain stimulus leads to a certain undesirable result. Scientists have tested fear conditioning and proven its effectiveness. It’s basically the mean flipside of Pavlov teaching his dog that a ringing bell meant it was dinner time.

Fear conditioning has to be one of the major contributing factors to our continued ability to, well, stay alive. Our ancestors learned a long time ago that if you put your hand in a fire or get eaten by a saber-tooth tiger, it really sucks. Sometimes it sucks so bad that you die. So whether they actually touched a fire and burned their foraging hand—or just saw someone else do it—you can bet that they probably didn’t make that mistake again.

Moreover, we learn from fear better the more directly we’re impacted by it. It’s one thing to hear a story about someone at another company who made a mistake and suffered the consequences. Intellectually, you might hear that precautionary tale and file it away in your brain as a potential learning moment. But that’s nothing compared to the visceral fear you feel coursing through your veins as soon as you realize you accidentally CC’ed the wrong person on that email.

Fear conditioning is an example of the reasoning behind our love of building eLearning that’s focused on actual behaviors. When you engage a learner with  specific actions to take, rather than lecturing them on broad, abstract concepts, you activate a part of human nature that makes them want to do better.

Learners are human. They don’t want to fail.

You can great results when you put your learners into a simulated environment where they have to make choices. Learners are human. They don’t want to fail. They don’t want to feel like they made a dumb mistake. So put them in the driver’s seat, and watch their fear of failure motivate them to succeed.

That’s another reason why we love not to overload learners with interminable prefaces full of instructional text that warn them about the various intricacies of what they’re about to do. It’s not necessary. And, what’s worse, it often doesn’t even work! For many learners, no amount of introductory text can explain the rules with the clarity that comes from making a choice and getting surprised with incorrect feedback. That moment, where we feel the consequences of our failure, triggers something inside of us. That fear tells us we must strive to do better next time.

Fear can hold us back if we’re not careful

There’s a legend about this scientific experiment conducted with a bunch of monkeys. They say these scientists had five monkeys in a room, with a ladder in the middle. And every time one of the monkeys climbed the ladder, the scientists would spray all of the other monkeys with a hose. Naturally, all the wet, ladder-less monkeys hated this. So soon enough, if any monkey tried to climb the ladder, all of the other monkeys would beat that monkey up to keep it off the ladder and keep the scientists from giving them the hose. Classic fear conditioning. Then, the scientists swapped out one of the monkeys with a new one, who had never seen anyone get sprayed with the hose. Still, when that monkey tried to climb the ladder, all of the other monkeys prevented it, because they knew what would happen to them. Then, the scientists swapped out another monkey, and the same thing happened. And again, and again, and again, until the room was full of monkeys who had never seen the hose come out once, but still somehow knew that it was a bad thing for any monkey to climb the ladder, and it must be prevented at all costs. This fear, entrenched and reinforced over time, became woven into the fabric of that little monkey society.

Now, I call it a legend because it works much more as an instructive fable than as a scientifically sound, reproducible study. The particulars of that story have been thoughtfully debunked from a purely scientific perspective, but there’s a reason it resonates with us. Another study recently demonstrated that fear and anxiety can actually be passed down genetically from one generation to the next.

That idea of inherited fear is what really interests me. Whether it’s purely a matter of genetics or information explicitly passed down from ancestors, we often rely on inherited knowledge—and a lot of it has evolved out of a history of fear. What happens to our understanding of the world when we move beyond the simple, animal instinct of learning from our own mistakes and start basing our decisions based only on what we’ve been led to believe by others?

On the one hand, we’re incredibly lucky to be living in a society that has built on its own knowledge, however slowly. We have to learn from others, don’t we? If we don’t, we’re doomed to make the same mistakes everyone else already has.

But our knowledge will never truly grow if we only accept what we’ve been told and leave it at that. I think often about how readily I would have believed now-disproven conventional wisdom from ancient history. I can practically guarantee that I never would have figured out the Earth was round on my own. Our understanding of the world has only deepened when great minds questioned what they’d heard, took some risks, and tested new hypotheses.

Fear can stifle our learning, but only if we let it. When we stay in our comfort zones, fearing that doing something different will rock the boat too much, we wall ourselves off from new ways of thinking. When we build training, it’s important to work with the dangerous new ideas learners are afraid of and to help them see what awaits them on the other side of that fear.

Our fears can show us the future

I’ve struggled to figure out what I think the place of fear is in learning. Is it an asset or a liability? Does it help us learn, or does it hold us back?

Karen Thompson Walker’s thoughtful TED Talk from 2012, “What fear can teach us,” has given me my favorite way to think about this. Walker argues that fears are a double-edged sword; we can let our fears immobilize us, or we can put our fears to work and use them to solve our problems. We can use them to see into the future.

Walker puts it nicely: “What if instead of calling them fears, we called them stories? Because that’s really what fear is, if you think about it. It’s a kind of unintentional storytelling that we are all born knowing how to do.”

Walker goes on to describe her own experiences growing up in California, detailing the way her mind would race during minor earthquakes, imagining what would happen if a massive earthquake hit her house while her family was asleep. But, as she says, you can think of that fear as a story.

That fear of a massive earthquake can be drawn out into a fearfully imagined beginning, middle, and end. The mind races through the story of that earthquake, and it helps illustrate one possible course of events. That’s pretty stressful, but it’s incredibly useful.

We can’t stop there, though. If we only let ourselves imagine the worst in every possible instance, we’ll be totally paralyzed by fear. What’s more, we’ll be wrong a lot of the time. Sometimes, the worst-case scenario happens. Sometimes, the best-case scenario happens. Most of the time, it’s some average, unremarkable, middle-of-the-pack case scenario. We can tap into our fears to imagine the worst of all possible worlds, but then we need to put it into context.

When those fears are thought through and married with a calm, rational approach to the situation at hand, they can help us imagine the future and plan for what’s ahead. Or, as Walker writes: “Just like all great stories, our fears focus our attention on a question that is as important in life as it is in literature: What will happen next?”

Fears provoke a visceral need to know what’s about to happen.

I think that’s the real key. Fears provoke a visceral need to know what’s about to happen. The effects of our actions become more important to us than ever as we imagine every possible consequence that might befall us.

In training, we often hope to borrow this effect and use it to help our learners. We want learners to see the possible effects of their actions, so they can understand all the positive and negative things that might happen because of their choices. By giving them this information in the context of their training, we prepare them with a new way of looking at the decisions they’re likely to face every day. And while the environment they’re in is completely safe, they wouldn’t learn quite so well if they weren’t just a little bit afraid.

Chosen for You

Our Cats Are Not Aloof to eLearning

Some of our feline friends’ attributes align with how we approach creating your eLearning. No really.

Senior Leadership’s Top 7 Objections to Custom...

Use these strategies to make stakeholders feel great about their training.

Define Your Success, Not Your Solution

Don’t lose sight of your goals in favor of a dream product.