In recent posts, I’ve covered the first two of the four cognitive conditions used by training simulation software to produce self-generated insights. While these focused on priming, an implicit memory effect in which exposure to a stimulus prepares an individual for a later stimulus, the last two conditions focus on encoding. Neural encoding refers to the connections that are created between stimulus and response; when the brain processes and synthesizes stimuli, neurons spike and connections are made. Underlying the conditions are periods of reflection, to allow the brain to process and re-energize. In this post, I’ll discuss one of two conditions focused on encoding, called activating core beliefs.

First, it’s helpful to understand the connection between the activation, or firing, of cells and how this is associated with optimal learning. Cells that fire together, wire together. Donald Hebb, considered the father of neuropsychology and neural networks, observed that when simultaneous activation of cells occurs, a deeper synaptic bond is created. In other words, the more the learning is emotionally engaging and educationally rigorous, the more cells fire and the more learning occurs.

The goal for simulation training, then, is to create effective leadership training programs in which participants must use visual searching, working memory, and long-term memory to make decisions and evaluate outcomes. This will stimulate brain activity and increase the likelihood that when employees go back to the job and face noise, they will be able to recall and apply these newly attained skills.

An additional benefit to creating a stimulating environment for learning and development training is that it will also overcome the distractions of boredom. Every learning and development consultant knows that people get bored easily. There’s actually a physiological explanation for it: the process known as “habituation” is a decrease in behavioral response to stimuli after repeated exposure to the same stimulus over time. When the mind goes into that “habitual” state, very little learning can occur. Fewer synapses fire, dopamine is reduced, autopilot is switched on, and the all-too-familiar daydreaming look overtakes people’s faces. Here are a few custom learning theory principles that help learners activate their Core Abilities.

Less Content, More Thinking

More content does not equate to better thinking; nor does it lead to behavior change. When employees come to the realization that what they know is not adequate for the current situation, they become motivated to fill those gaps. In leadership development training programs, if you give learners too much content, they won’t have time to internalize the gaps in their mental models. And, if you give them information that is not readily applicable, then there is a risk that they may overlook that information.

Trainers should only give content if the student has earned or requested it. If a student asks a good question or identifies a discrepancy within the data, for example, then trainers should provide additional information. Or, if a student has been placed into a situation, and the business simulation or the student reaches the conclusion that he lacks the necessary foundational knowledge, then the trainer should provide relevant content. In designing how-to-think solutions, trainers must keep the focus on creating experiential learning activities that allow for students to discover the effectiveness of their own thinking and evolve it accordingly.

Slightly Distort It; Don’t Over-Package It

When information is nicely packaged and presented in a structured manner, learners may not challenge it. As Kahneman explained, we spend most of our life in System 1 where we make fast, automatic and often unconscious decisions that are prone to bias and systematic errors. System 1 is gullible and biased to believe, so it prefers when information is nicely packaged. System 2, on the other hand, is the mind’s slower, analytical mode, where reason dominates, but it is also skeptical and unbelieving, and unfortunately, lazy. So, to kick System 2 into gear, trainers must set up a situation that gives learners a reason to question.

For example, Kahneman observed that when students are presented information in a font type that is difficult to read, System 2 is triggered because the information cannot be easily consumed. To trigger System 2—in other words, the Core Abilities—leadership development consultants should not pre-process and regurgitate back to the participants’ data, teach points, debrief questions, and information set up as bullet points and checklists.

Instead, trainers should present this information in such a way to cause participants to stop and think. For example, asking participants to determine the primary and secondary effects based on different courses of actions is one way to prompt System 2 thinking.

In my next post, I’ll address the last of the four cognitive conditions that result in self-generated insights in simulation training, surfacing limiting beliefs.

Michael Vaughan is the CEO of The Regis Company, a global provider of custom business simulations and experiential learning programs. Michael is the author of the books The Thinking Effect: Rethinking Thinking to Create Great Leaders and the New Value Worker and The End of Training: How Business Simulations Are Reshaping Business.

Mike Vaughan

Author Mike Vaughan

More posts by Mike Vaughan