Whether you’ve been aware of it or not, you have likely experienced seductive details at some point in your educational or professional training experience. In fact, you may currently have them in your own training programs without even realizing it! Seductive details are elements added to a learning program purely for the sake of interest and entertainment with little, if any, relevance. For instance, in a section of a textbook that discusses clinical depression, a picture of a despondent teen is a seductive detail, because it does not contain any learning content. Other examples include humorous cartoons, videos or background music. Even an informative sidebar could be a seductive detail if it is not relevant to the content. For example, in a passage about the rules of baseball, a historical sidebar about Jackie Robinson would be a seductive detail.
Seductive details are meant to enhance learner engagement, which is certainly a noble goal. Learner engagement is an important variable to consider in any training effort. It is associated with better training outcomes across the board, including more positive post-training attitudes, higher motivation to learn and improved-on-the-job performance. These outcomes are great, but do seductive details really help obtain them?
There are two opposing schools of thought on seductive details. The first is that seductive details increase learner attention and lead to stronger engagement and, thus, the litany of positive outcomes that come with it. The second school of thought disagrees, concerned that seductive details are a distraction that appropriates precious cognitive resources that should be dedicated to the actual content.
Many researchers have attempted to determine which school of thought is correct. Results have been mixed but largely in favor of the latter perspective. In fact, the term “seductive effect” has come to refer to the negative effect that seductive details have by “seducing” a learner away from processing the content. However, as with most concepts involving people, the effects of seductive details can depend on individual differences, as well as differences in the training delivery and subject matter.
Unfortunately, even with the mounting evidence against the use of seductive details, many learning professionals continue to include them in their training programs without considering relevant variables. To help you decide whether you should be including or removing seductive details from your training program, here are some questions you should ask yourself.
1. Which Training Delivery Method Are You Using?
Most research on seductive details has studied text delivery, including textbooks, short reading passages and self-paced e-learning programs. For the most part, they have shown decidedly negative effects on learning and retention outcomes for this delivery method. For instance, a recent review found that five of nine studies addressing the effects of seductive details observed negative effects, two showed no effect and only two observed positive effects. If you deliver your training in a text format, these results suggest there is almost an 80% chance that seductive details will either hurt or have no effect on your training outcomes.
In the two studies that showed a positive effect, that effect appeared to be mediated by learners’ spending more time with the text. This research suggests that, if a training program uses seductive details, it is important that learners are not under a time pressure.
2. Who Are Your Learners?
An important individual difference in determining the effect of seductive details is the learners’ working memory, or short-term memory storage of task-relevant information. Think about when you’re solving a math problem. Have you ever had to write it down because it was “too much to keep in your head”? If so, you have experienced the limitations of your working memory.
The more limited a learner’s working memory, the less “space” he or she will have to process the presence of seductive details. Research suggests that a higher working memory capacity could mitigate the negative effects of seductive details. However, even these results are mixed, with some research suggesting this mitigating effect does not extend to spatial working memory.
In addition to working memory, prior content knowledge is an important predictor of the effect of seductive details. While seductive details are generally harmful to the acquisition of new information, learners who already have a background in the content may appreciate the inclusion of seductive details. For these learners with background knowledge, seductive details may prevent them from mentally “checking out” when they see content they already know.
If you are concerned about advanced learners checking out because of rudimentary content, consider using seductive details. If you are teaching new material, or your learners have average to below-average working memory capacity, seductive details are not for you.
3. What Topics Are You Covering?
Finally, consider the subject matter. Seductive details have consistently shown negative effects for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects, but results have been slightly more positive for other subjects. One study (published in the book “Eloquent Images: Writing Visually in the Age of New Media”) that examined this divide asked students to read a history text or a text on the science of earthquakes. Researchers found that the effect of seductive details on learning about earthquakes was negative, while its effect on learning about history was positive. If your subject matter is less technical, such as soft skills or customer service training, you might want to consider using seductive details. If your subject matter is technical, such as computer programming or heavy equipment training, seductive details are likely to harm your learners.
While seductive details generally have a negative effect, there are exceptions to almost every rule. These questions should help you decide if seductive details are right for your training program.