Cognitive Biases and their Impact on Workplace Learning

Recently I attended a workshop by Christine Owen, and learned an interesting aspect of human cognition which we learning designers should consider in workplace learning or training design. The information she shared was both relevant to the leadership and learning designers. She shared what could go wrong at workplace if leaders/employees were not aware of their cognitive biases. Knowing what could impede learning at workplace, we could take the necessary measures in eliminating them. Our cognitive biases could hinder learning, or proper decision-making at workplace. This is because our cognition plays a role in sense-making and how we process information.

Let us have a look at the main cognitive biases that could affect processing information. If you are a manager, you can use this information to monitor your employees’ learning and your own decision making. If you are a learning designer, you can relate to it when designing your courses and training as you will have a better understanding of your learners and how they think, so you will know how they might perceive the designed materials.

Cognitive Biases

1) Attentional: There are four types of attentional bias:

  • Framing: Receiving different responses from the same problem depending on how it is described
  • Anchoring: Giving excessive weight to an unimportant but salient feature of the problem,
  • Availability: Capturing by the current moment or most recent thing discussed,
  • Sunk-cost: Tendency to continue with a plan or action because of the invested effort, even if it is not working

Mitigation Strategies for Attentional Cognitive Bias

> Be suspicious of your first inclination and see if there are more effective actions not yet suggested
> Assess the specific observations that are forming your impressions
> Identify the triggers that indicate a need to change a course of action

2) Relational: Below are four types of relational bias:

  • Bandwagon effect: Going with the crowd in other words groupthink
  • False consensus: Assuming most people think like us
  • In-group/Out-group: Tendency to accept opinions from people who are more like us and to distrust information from others
  • Devil effect: Stereotyping people based on previous experiences

Mitigation Strategies for Relational Cognitive Bias

> Notice what happens when someone suggests an alternative
> Appoint someone as “devil’s advocate”
> Look for cliques and observe their influence on information sharing and decision-making
> Assess the amount of available information (we are more likely to think people are stupid when we have less data)

3) Projectional: These are the types of projectional bias:

  • Self-serving: Desire for a positive self-image; tendency to claim more responsibility for successes than failures
  • Egocentric bias: Avoidance of unpleasant cognitive dissonance
  • Fundamental attribution error: Over-emphasizing personality-based explanations and under-emphasizing the role and power of situational influences
  • Overconfidence bias: Tendency to over-estimate the effectiveness of our own strategies and under-estimate the effectiveness of the enemy

Mitigation Strategies for Projectional Cognitive Bias

> Be open to acknowledge that there may be a better way or consider alternative interpretations

4) Evidence-based: There are three types of evidence-based bias:

  • Hindsight bias: Inclination to see past events as being predictable
  • Confirmation bias: Tendency to interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions
  • Gambler’s fallacy: Putting a tremendous amount of weight on previous events, believing that they’ll somehow influence future outcomes

Mitigation Strategies for Evidence-based Cognitive Bias

> Point out possibilities for bias
> Engage in considering worst case scenarios to increase recognition of alternative outcomes
> Look for sources of mental noise that can be interfering with decision-making


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Most of us when being trained or studying instructional design have been told to take learner’s learning styles or preferences into consideration. This has made us think that we must design eLearning courses which have to cater for visual and auditory learners, or even kinesthetic ones. While this is a very good thing, I feel we are going to extremes about this. Let me share with you why I think so. Continue reading