The Placebo Effect in Learning

It is often the case that we have to argue our way to a solution with managers in the organisations we’re part of. Managers have a view about what learning looks like. It’s my role to help others see how I’m the expert in learning and development and as such can advise the best solution for learning. As I often advocate that should more often include performance support on the job, with a training course as part of the solution, not the end.

The placebo effect fascinates me. What is it? In medical terms, it’s when you have a control group of patients who think they’re receiving certain medicine to improve their condition but in reality are receiving nothing more than a sugar pill or something else non-critical. Want to know something interesting about the plaecbo effect? People’s health can still improve even though they are told they are taking nothing more than a placebo.

I swear I fall into this category. When I suffer hayfever, I take an anti-allergy tablet. I am sure if I took a placebo, I would stop sniffling and sneezing all the same. But because I am taking something, actually physically doing the act of taking a tablet, I know I’ll feel better.

So is it the tablet, or is it the power of human belief?

Learning is a lot like this. We send people on training to fix them. But often it’s not the training that fixes them. It’s the dialogue they’re having in the learning, the self dialogue they’re having about the learning, and the self assessment they’re doing about the topic. What they learn at the session either supports their thoughts or challenges them or serves neither.

Which makes me wonder how do we mitigate for this?

It also makes me realise that I’ve totally made the case for not investing in L&D and just argued the department into redundancy.

The mitigation of the placebo effect for me is this.

– Managers are the key to performance support. If they don’t know how to do that, no amount of learning interventioning (totally a word) will improve the situation
– People learn best when they’re in dialogue with one another. As the very wise Julie Drybrough says “I challenge you to talk in a group of people and not learn something. It just can’t happen.”
– In organisations we need to get much better at developing communities of practice or communities of interest. This is where innovation happens and this is where people learn.
– If we’re going to offer online support we need to be aware of natural online usage. People don’t surf the web looking for e-learning. They look for articles to read or videos to watch or podcasts to listen to. They will do e-learning only because it’s mandated as a way to deliver core information. Fine, so let’s make that whole thing excellent.

You’ll note I haven’t spoken about alignment to business objectives. Or speaking the language of business. Or ROI. Or anything else we’re meant to focus on. That’s cos all these things are red herrings.

The above is essentially the talk I’m going to be giving at Learning Live in September. See you there?

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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

One thought on “The Placebo Effect in Learning”

  1. We were part of a great example of this recently Sukh, the conversation bit.

    We brought a team together after a couple of days of intense strategising and planning. They were exhausted from their efforts so far.They know us well so they had preconceptions about how they might be spending the next 90 minutes with us. And I think we surprised them a little!

    We gave them 16 pieces of art, asked them to get into pairs and had them talk about what they could see and what it meant to them, and share their thoughts about how the art applied to their current challenges and how it could help them achieve their business outcomes.

    No measurable output required, no flip charts to capture what they said and record it for follow up, no action points……just 90 minutes of talk to each other, giving attention, thinking, learning, understanding more, re-calibrating.

    Afterwards the quality of conversation has continued. Turns out, talking to each other was a truly powerful ‘intervention’ for them. “A little more conversation, a little less training please!”

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