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Learning and Memory - 11 April 2013

Let’s say you’re driving to a place you’ve never been before. You have neither a map nor a GPS. Unfortunately you get lost on the way, so you stop and ask someone for directions. The helpful local might reply with something like this: “Just keep driving straight ahead and take the second left then your first right. Keep going down ‘til you see the café on the corner and then turn left. At the second set of lights, turn right, and you’re there.”

Those directions are straightforward. You hear them, say thank you, and drive off. But as soon as you take the first part of those directions, you stop, having totally forgotten the rest – despite making a conscious effort to remember.

If that’s ever happened to you, it’s because of something known as foresight bias, which occurs when we overconfidently presume that our memory will retain information.


For example, you might think of a great idea, and it’s so fantastic you decide there’s no need to write it down because it’d be impossible to ever forget an idea this good! But then you forget it. Or you might place your car keys somewhere, in a location you just know is so obvious. But then you lose them.

These occurrences often arise because of the foresight bias. It’s a cognitive illusion that many of us experience when we overestimate how easy it’ll be to remember something. That’s why, in the workplace, you might be baffled as to why employees are still completing a process in an old way when you’ve already instructed them on the new procedure. Or why you’ve taught something in a training program that people can’t recall at a later date. Or why you deliver a coaching session but there’s still no behavioural change.

Instead of apportioning blame, consider that the foresight bias might be having a negative influence. Here are some solutions to help your team overcome it:

- In coaching sessions, do more asking than telling so that employees do more thinking than listening.

- When outlining a new process, ask employees to summarise the instructions using their own words and, if possible, to write them down.

- Use a variety of means to convey the same message such as pictures, diagrams, stories, statistics, and activities.

- In training manuals, include more blank spaces than text so that people can write what they hear in ways that most resonate with them.

- Identify the preferred learning method for each individual and then tailor training programs to suit those learning preferences.

- Understand that in an era where people are bombarded with more information than ever before, it’s essential to repeat it in different ways over a longer period of time in order for it to be retained.

At the very least, let employees know the foresight bias exists so they can prepare for it. Because there’s wisdom in the old saying that what we need more than foresight or hindsight is … insight.


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