What is the Illusion of Explanatory Depth—and What Does It Mean for Your Learning?

When was the last time you watched a Youtube video to try to learn a new skill? Maybe you were attempting to fix the kitchen sink, or perhaps you were learning how to play guitar. How did it go? How many attempts did it take for you to perfect the skill that the content creator executed flawlessly?

If you’re like most people, you probably paused the video several times, went back to review an important step, and maybe even watched the whole thing once or twice over. Even after all of that, you might’ve found yourself still struggling to master the skill. This familiar experience actually has a name: the illusion of explanatory depth (IOED).

It might sound complex, but it’s more straightforward—and common—than you might think. If you’re new to the idea, the illusion of explanatory depth occurs when people feel that they understand a complex topic or concept better than they actually do. It’s only when we’re tasked with having to explain a concept that we realize we know less than we thought we did.

Here’s a simple exercise that demonstrates how the IOED works

Using a 1-10 scale, with 10 corresponding to “most confident” and 1 corresponding to “least confident,” how confident are you in your ability to draw a bike?

We’ve asked this question a lot, and if you’re like the majority of people, you probably gave yourself a pretty confident rating. It’s pretty simple, right? Now, take a few minutes to actually draw a bike from memory, as accurately and realistically as you can. When you’re finished, find a photo of a bike for comparison. How does your drawing compare to the mechanics and proportions of a real bike? Did you accurately remember which pieces connect and where?

If you’re rethinking the confidence score you gave yourself, you’re not alone. When we ran this same experiment at ATD 2021, we asked participants to rate themselves again after having tried their hand at drawing a bike—there was a 35 percent drop in perceived ability from 6.9 to 4.5. Check out a few of the drawings we collected that show the difference between one’s perceived ability to draw a bike and the ability to actually do it.

This simple exercise is just one example of the illusion of explanatory depth at work. The implications of the IOED on your own L&D efforts are substantial and, as we’ve learned, common.

Where might the illusion of explanatory depth be showing up in your learning projects? How can you mitigate it so that learners accurately rate their abilities and will be more receptive to learning? Here’s what you need to know about the illusion of explanatory depth and how it relates to learning.

What is the illusion of explanatory depth (IOED)?

The illusion of explanatory depth came out of a study by Leonid Rozenbilt and Frank Keil, The Misunderstood Limits of Folk Science: an illusion of explanatory depth (2002). The study explores the phenomenon that people feel they understand complex topics with greater precision, coherence, and depth than they really do. In other words, they are subject to the illusion of understanding.

The study first asked a group of Yale undergraduate students to rank their understanding of everyday items such as sewing machines, zippers, and cell phones. Then, they asked the students to write a detailed explanation of how each of the items actually work. After that, they were asked to rate their understanding of each item again. As Rozenbilt and Keil explain it, “nearly all participants showed drops in estimates of what they knew when confronted with having to provide a real explanation, answer a diagnostic question, and compare their understanding to an expert description.”

Especially when it comes to explanatory knowledge (versus facts and procedures), our ability to explain certain aspects of a concept—such as how to make calls on a cell phone or how to repair a zipper—convinces us that we understand it much better than we actually do. Often, it takes having to explain the concept in depth to realize that our confidence doesn’t align with our ability.

And this illusion isn’t limited to bicycles and sewing machines: IOED is a pervasive force in our social and political realms, too. People often hold the most passionate views about complex sociopolitical topics that they don’t fully grasp, and our abundant access to information is only fueling the illusion of knowledge.

A second study backs up Rozenbilt and Keil’s initial findings. In Easier Seen Than Done: Merely Watching Others Perform Can Foster an Illusion of Skill Acquisition, Michael Kardas and Ed O’Brien take a closer look at the influence of technology and the internet. The study found that repeatedly watching people perform skills on platforms like Youtube can foster an illusion of skill acquisition. The more people watched others perform a skill (without actually practicing themselves), the more they believed they could perform it, too. Notably, this increase in confidence was observed only after watching videos. Reading a book, a guide, or other instructional materials didn’t have the same effect.

But did their actual abilities improve? No such luck. From throwing darts and doing the moonwalk to playing an online game, participants’ skills didn’t improve at all from watching the videos—despite their predictions to the contrary.

The illusion of explanatory depth in learning

Left unchecked, the illusion of explanatory depth can result in overconfidence and low receptivity in your learners, both of which can derail your learning efforts. In fact, maybe you’ve experienced it yourself.

We’ve all walked into a learning experience and rolled our eyes, thinking we already know all there is to know on the subject matter. That’s the illusion of explanatory depth at work, and our goal as learning professionals is to prevent overconfidence—and the low receptivity that usually follows.

We often think we know more about learners than we actually do. Field observation and interviews offer an opportunity to actively meet people where they are on their learning journey. In the process, you’ll mitigate your own illusion of explanatory depth about how to best serve your learner audience. Here are a few ideas for getting started.

Observation

Spend a half day observing one or more of your learners. Watch what they do and how they do it. How much time do they have for learning? What interruptions do they have? What is the work environment like?

Commit to regularly shadowing your learners (think every quarter or every 6 months) so that you understand their challenges and their day-to-day routines. Observation will give you a greater foundation to design learning that meets them where they are. For example, maybe you were planning to deploy a desktop course, but through observation, you realize that a podcast training would be a better fit for an on-the-go workforce.

Interview

Ask four or five of your learners to participate in a 1:1 discussion to learn more about them and their jobs. What are their motivations? What are their biggest challenges? What are their hopes and fears?

Interviews augment your observations further by providing insight into the psychological state of your learners: who they are, what drives them, and where they struggle. Use what you learned during the observation stage to ask better questions during interviews.

Mitigating the risk of the IOED

We owe it to learners to correctly get their confidence in check and build their ability, not just their knowledge. As learning pros, we could be unknowingly adding to the IOED challenge for our learners. Telling or showing isn’t the same as building a skill through practice or application.

Use video strategically

How has your team used video to support your learners? Video is a great tool for building knowledge—it’s the reason so many of us turn to Youtube for a quick tutorial. Youtube and other how-to videos are incredible resources for knowledge, but as we already learned, videos can also create a heightened illusion of understanding.

Here’s how that applies to your learning projects. Let’s say you create a training video using one of your team members as the Subject Matter Expert (SME). It’s great to center someone that your team members can relate to, but watching a peer complete the task successfully could create a misplaced sense of confidence. Relying on video alone isn’t enough.

Use the learning ecology matrix

Knowledge doesn’t equate to ability, but knowledge can lead to overconfidence. So, what to do?

Keep in mind that learning is a process, not a one-time event. Effective learning involves discovery, planning, application, and reflection—and each stage of the learning process calls for different tools and elements. Use the learning ecology matrix to design better learning that helps your learners not just build knowledge, but practice and apply what they’ve learned.

For example, let’s say you’re currently relying on videos for most of your learning. Use the learning ecology matrix to pair videos with other learning elements that will help people assess their ability, recognize their gaps, and keep practicing until they can accurately apply the skill. You might assign learners an independent project or a series of scenarios, or bring your learners together for a practice lab.

Learning is a process

As learning professionals, it’s our duty to create better learning. Although the illusion of explanatory depth can pose a threat to L&D efforts, it’s easily avoided when you put in the time to design a thoughtful, well-rounded learning experience.

One way we counteract the IOED is by activating our learning principles. We look to them to ensure we’re truly serving our learners and meeting them where they are. As one of our principles reminds us, learning is a process.

Are we using the right tools to deliver new content? Are we designing experiences that help learners practice and apply what they just learned? If you help learners correctly rate their confidence, it will help them to understand where they have room to learn and grow—making them more receptive to learning.

What do your learners need at different stages of the learning process?

The learning ecology matrix helps you level up how you’re architecting your learning experiences.

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