Workplace learning: How to frame the learning process
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Workplace learning: How to frame the learning process

A growing body of research continues to reveal the power of “framing”. Put simply, framing research shows that the way a situation is presented can have a significant effect on how one reacts.

For example, if someone asks, “Would you like a fresh-baked, delicious cookie?” you’d probably say yes. But if they asked, “Would you like a fattening, unhealthy cookie?” you might think twice.

A classic way to frame a choice is by portraying it was a positive or negative — or as a gain or a loss. In a famous study, 67 percent of Ph.D. students registered early for classes when told they would receive a discount (a gain) for doing so. But over 93 percent registered early when told they would be hit with a penalty (a loss) if they didn’t.

Same choices, different framing. And as with this study, framing research often concludes with the observation that most people are “risk averse” — that they make decisions to avoid losses.

But what about in a learning context? If framing can have a significant effect on how people make decisions, how can it affect workplace learning?

The research

Researchers at the University of Geneva and the University of Amsterdam explored how framing can shape the learning process. Specifically, they wanted to know whether gains or losses affected how people learned and how they perceived their own abilities.

Participants in the study were divided into two groups — a gains group and a losses group — and given a computer-based test. The screen showed the participants two symbols and a score at the top that indicated how much “money” they had. Participants were told to repeatedly choose between the two symbols to learn through trial and error which one was more likely to increase their score. For the gains group, they were told to find the symbol that maximized their profits. For the losses group, they were told to find the symbol that was less likely to lose them money. (In case you’re wondering, the researchers programmed the test so that one symbol had a 75 percent chance of increasing the participants’ score while the other symbol had a 25 percent chance.)

After the test was over, participants were given written questions about the perceived accuracy of their choice and the confidence they had in their decision-making process.

When the researchers analyzed the results, they found, surprisingly, that there was no difference in the learning process between the gains group and the losses group. Both performed equally well in determining which symbol was more beneficial. But the researchers discovered other important differences that showed how framing affected the two groups.

Positive framing increased confidence

The researchers found that the gains group reported being more confident in their choices – over 10 percent more confident than the losses group. The gains group also made their choices more quickly, perhaps as a result of their increasing confidence.

Growing confidence is normal during the learning process and confident learners who make quick decisions may sound like a desired outcome for workplace learning. But the researchers also warned of a downside. As the lead researcher stated, gains group participants “end up clearly overestimating their performance” to the point of overconfidence, which can be a dangerous trait.

Conversely, the losses group, with their negative framing, were more likely to doubt their choices. And questioning your decisions could lead you to reevaluate your thought process and find a better approach. But, according to the researchers, the downside here is that  self-doubt could undermine confidence, leading to increased anxiety for learners with this type of framing.

Negative framing increased flexibility

In a follow-up test, researchers switched the effect of the two symbols, making the best one the worst and vice versa. The gains group had trouble identifying the change and were slow to shift their strategy. People in the losses group, however, quickly noticed the change, switched their strategy and were more successful as a result.

“This is probably the result of evolution: when there’s a danger, you have to think quickly and adapt your decisions, while when everything is going well, we try to maintain the positive situation,” explained the head researcher. The implication is that positive framing and the pursuit of gains can make learners less flexible when circumstances change, while learners who are concerned with mitigating loss will adapt quickly to avoid further losses.

Recommendations

Here are a couple research-based takeaways to help your organization use the power of framing.

The message matters.

While the research suggests that framing doesn’t impact learners’ performance or ability to absorb new information, it can affect their perceptions and behavior during the learning process.

As the head researcher stated, “The learning context is crucial. The fear of loss makes people anxious and they begin to doubt their choices; yet it also provides more flexibility and accuracy. The lure of profit, on the other hand, boosts self-confidence and well-being but reduces our ability to make assessments.”

Tailor the message based on your situation.

Using the research, you can frame certain learning content based on the desired outcome. Do you want your learners to come away from the learning experience feeling confident and ready to make quick decisions? Then frame the learning material positively or through the prism of gains. 

For example, a new closing technique for your sales team could be framed as: “You’re going to learn this new closing technique so you can boost sales and increase your commission.”

Do you want your learners to exit a learning experience with the flexibility to adapt in the moment in order to make the most accurate choices? Then frame it negatively or through the prism of losses.

For example: “You’re going to learn this new closing technique so you can stop sales from slipping through your fingers and losing your commission.”

How you choose to frame it all depends on your specific situation. As the head researcher concluded, “It’s a question of striking a balance between the two.”


Sources

Lebreton, M., et al. (2019). Contextual influence on confidence judgments in human reinforcement learning. PLoS Computational Biology, 15(4), e1006973. doi: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1006973

Gächter, S., et al. (2009). Are experimental economists prone to framing effects? A natural field experiment. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 70(3), 443-446.

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