Nonconscious Processing and Accelerated Expertise
Published on January 16, 2020
The Nonconscious Mind
In a famous experiment from the late 1970s, two researchers, Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson, set up a display of four pantyhose in a thrift store and asked passersby to fill out a “Consumer Evaluation Survey,” indicating which one they liked best. There was a clear winner: Four out of five women chose the pantyhose on the right.
The researchers then asked them to provide descriptions as to why they made their choice, and all of them pointed to detailed aspects like color, quality, and softness to explain why the one on the right was superior.
But there was an interesting twist in this experiment: all of the pantyhose were exactly the same. None of their descriptions were relevant to their actual choice, because the color, quality and softness were identical. The actual culprit influencing their decision was the position of the pantyhose in the display, but none of them listed display position as a relevant influencing factor. Even after the researchers then told participants that display position was actually the primary determining factor in their choice, many of them refused to believe it.
One of the most astonishing findings in cognitive science over the last several decades is that the vast majority of what goes on in our brains happens outside of conscious awareness.
The nonconscious nature of many automatic functions of the brain have been well understood for a long time – things like breathing, digestion, blood flow, and temperature regulation. These activities all require heavy neural processing, but we would quickly become overwhelmed if we had to actively and consciously direct them.
While these automatic functions have been well understood, brain research in recent years has shown that a far larger percentage of the activities in our brain once thought to be part of rational, conscious deliberation also occur largely outside of conscious awareness. Our preferences, our choices, our decisions and even our perception of the world around us – all are shaped far less by deliberate attention than by the mysteries of the nonconscious mind.
Conscious attention is best used to strategize, to set goals, and to tell a good story to ourselves and others about why we’ve made our choices or why we have certain preferences, even though we don’t have conscious access to either. As David Eagleman, a leading researcher cognitive science writes, “We have ways of retrospectively telling stories about our actions as though the actions were always our idea…The idea of retrospective storytelling suggests that we come to know our own attitudes and emotions, at least partially, by inferring them from observations of our own behavior.”
Learning and Training for Implicit Memory
Research on nonconscious processing has also revolutionized another core feature of human cognition: how we learn. Long-term memory storage is typically broken down into two primary categories: 1) Explicit memory, which includes facts, images, stories, experiences, and events that we can consciously recall and articulate to others, and 2) Implicit memory, which includes all of the nonconscious features of memory, like skills, habits, associations, and conditioning that shape our behavior.
Traditional methods of education and classroom-style learning and training are well-suited for the storage and recall of facts, events and stories. The basic assumption for these kinds of methods is that if someone can digest information and explicitly reproduce it on a test or exam, they have “learned.”
These traditional methods work well for explicit learning. However, when we move to implicit learning, where memories are stored and activated by nonconscious processes, traditional methods are largely ineffective.
In particular, procedural knowledge, which accounts for most of the memory needed to perform complex job functions (e.g., operating vehicles, designing systems, and managing people) cannot be taught in a classroom. It must be learned through experience. And yet, most of our training programs use outdated instructional methods that rely heavily on explicit learning to prepare our workforces.
The graph above shows a range of different cognitive skills typically used on the job. Explicit knowledge (represented by the skills in orange) is good for enacting compliance-based guidelines and routine performance. But a far greater set of nonconscious, implicit knowledge, captured in functions (represented in blue) like situation awareness, intuition, and pattern matching, are the skills that truly differentiate expert from novice operators.
The Dilemma of Expertise
The set of procedural, implicit knowledge that characterizes expert performance requires experience, but experience is expensive. As the pace of change accelerates almost all of today’s organizations, this presents an urgent challenge: how do we get more people more experience more rapidly and at a reasonable price point?
The graph above shows a diagonal line indicating various kinds of organizational learning and training. This diagonal represents the current mindset for the majority of training products on the market – getting experience, though more effective, is inherently expensive, resource heavy and time consuming.
On the other hand, rolling out simpler, more scalable products is cost effective, but typically only engages the explicit cognitive skills that don’t allow for the deep development of expertise needed on the job.
To train the workforce of the future we must disrupt this mindset. We must start investing in products that provide greater experiential learning potential, while delivering them at scale with a reasonable price point.
We will always need training products that tap into our explicit knowledge. These products provide a standard set of compliance guidelines for how to carry out our jobs.
But to be able to harness the power of the larger, nonconscious parts of the brain that allow us to adapt to changing demands in complex operating environments, we will need a suite of products that fill the upper right hand corner of the graph – ones that use experiential learning methods that can accelerate expertise at an affordable cost.
Achieving this mindset shift requires moving experiential learning design away from highly specific products that target customized environments or specialized organizational needs. It requires moving toward more general products that can tap into implicit memory systems to develop high level skills adapted to a number of working environments, conditions or circumstances. Building these kinds of products allows us to deliver experiential learning at a scale needed to address the wide-ranging and emerging challenges of the future.