Knowledge, Insights and Myth Peddling

I’ve realised I’ve become a bit of a purist in some ways about the theories and models I advocate for in my work. Regular readers will know quite clearly of my biases against the likes of Learning Styles. It makes me wonder about what harm it’s doing though. I mean what harm is there in drawing insights from seemingly useful information?

Add to that, a lot of people these days can find out information on pretty much any topic. There’s so much knowledge on the internets these days, that a person’s learning is likely to increase through little more than a few clicks of a button. Long gone are those days of needing to ask your uncle who went to uni, just ask Google – oh yeah you don’t even need to type anymore.

So I’ve heard and read some right nonsense in recent weeks from people and sources who claim to be experts in their field and provide insights to their readership.

The first was a speaker at a conference. He was entertaining enough, and a real believer in the power of his own voice. He started to share some interesting anecdotes of customer service and then went on to suggest it takes 21 days of practise to change your behaviour. 21 days. 21… days… The reality is it takes more like 66 days. Yep that’s right, more than three times his suggestion. He was on a roll with listening to his own voice, so I couldn’t correct him. Dear L&D, please be careful with this information. Be it 21 or 84 days, that means our learning solutions need to take into account much more than delivering a stand alone course.

The second was in an online publication where they published two different articles both of which had horrid inaccuracies. The first article tried to suggest that there are male and female characteristics of emotional intelligence. I mean… emotions… human survival… development… evolution… So, look. Yes there are behaviours that men display more than women, but are women better at being emotionally intelligent than men? No, no they’re not. Do we understand our emotions differently and respond to them in different ways? Yes, yes we do. Why? Because of societal and cultural norms which reinforce our emotional reactions. That’s not men and women being better or worse or with different characteristics of emotional intelligence. Want a case in point? Take Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton and you tell me which has better of worse emotional intelligence than the other. It’s just a non-starter of an argument.

The second article tried to suggest that HR needs to decide if it is left brained or right brained. Ah, I see what they did there. They took a piece of theory about neuroscience and tried to use it to give credibility to their article, and apparently to the conference they’re marketing. Except the right brain/left brain thing is a complete myth and isn’t true in any way at all. The left brain isn’t more process driven than the right brain. It’s a seemingly sensible idea which has no evidence to support the assertion. Just none. It’s much better to understand how the brain creates connections with information it’s presented with, and the importance of neurochemicals in the support of behaviour change. It’s less easy to use that in marketing a conference, but at least you’re not using discredited information.

So are the insights people are trying to convey harmful? Well, yes. Insight drawn from flawed knowledge isn’t insight. Remember when people talked about how good asbestos was for use in buildings? That didn’t turn out well at all. It was based on initial insights which were thought to be highly useful but turned out to be actually deadly.

We’re not dealing with deadly things in our worlds of L&D and HR, but we are dealing with supporting people to live better and work better. That demands we provide credible information, and where appropriate with an evidence base, in support of initiatives we design and roll out.

The impact of these things being touted in open and public spaces is that the people listening and reading will take them onboard as fact and start to talk about them with others and try and sound credible. Worse is they will try and use them to talk about them in business settings. Where’s the problem in doing that?

It means all that work you’re trying to do in developing a solution will be based on flawed information. And let’s follow that through. If you’re already working with flawed information, the solution can’t be well designed. It might, but that’s likely to be by chance. It’s like trying to write a report on employee turnover and your information is only coming from one department of 30 out of a company with 300 staff.

So what can we do? Well, education on such topics is always the best solution. We can kindly remind people about actual research if it’s appropriate to do so. We can write and research ourselves. We can do nothing and let these flawed opinions keep being touted. We can always ask questions and see how well people understand the theory. And please don’t be fooled by an argument just because people say ‘the research says…’ or ‘the brain works like this…’. Dig deeper, listen better.


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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.

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