Cognitive Bias in Learning & Development

One of the harder topics to address through L&D solutions is the topic of cognitive bias. It’s a hard topic to address because as more research has been done in the area, we’ve uncovered many forms that bias can be manifest, and we’re also learning that in many cases your biases will be at play without your conscious thought. When we talk about topics like coaching or delegation, we can point to models and mindsets that need to be adopted. Much like diversity and inclusion, when we talk about cognitive bias, it becomes really hard to pin down where the action needs to take place.

In this piece from John Amaechi, he argues that unconscious bias training is largely ineffectual because it’s not addressing the right things. I see his point, and what he’s arguing about is the need to address systemic problems with how bias is manifest, and that’s much harder to acknowledge and correct. It can be done. Recently, National Geographic examined their own writing and reporting and found that they were reinforcing stereotypes and they were racist (and therefore our thinking and bias about those stereotypes). That’s a powerful step to show that there are organisations willing to look at what they’re doing which may be unwittingly reinforcing the beliefs, culture and status quo which benefits the many, provides a safe buffer for them and releases them from the guilt that they are in receipt of a better set of circumstances.

Heavy stuff.

And I’m concerned that in L&D we’re only reinforcing the same. Don’t believe me? In a recent piece of research carried out by Don Taylor, he presented data that shows women are still not occupying the top strategic and senior roles in L&D. Maybe this isn’t something L&D themselves can fix due to hierarchy structures, but it does say something about how this profession is as subject to systemic inequality as any other.

Anecdotally, I’ve written for several years how it is very observable at conferences there is not enough being done to have a better diversity of speakers. And the common response is – it’s hard to find a diverse range of speakers. To which my response generally is – you’re not looking hard enough and you’re taking the easy route with known quantities.

I’m also drawn to our thinking when it comes to the design of learning solutions and how we either actively or don’t look at the data in front of us and how we act on it (or not).

If we’re facilitating an away day and notice the group are samey, how do we ask the question of why it’s a homogenous group?

If we’re leading a management training session and there’s a predominance of a group, how do we raise a concern that this may present a problem to the organisation?

When we’re delivering a session on delegation and coaching, how do we heighten people to the reality that they may favour better development of one group over another?

When we’re designing e-learning and using scenarios, what stereotypes are we reinforcing unwittingly?

When the LMS is the de facto place people go to access learning, is it usable by those who are sight impaired?

When we’re talking to stakeholders, what is the diversity make up of that group?

I could go on.

I am not saying that L&D are not addressing these things (and not limited to these things). I am not saying that we are being consciously unfair.

I am highlighting here that there is still much to be better understood and for us to be more purposeful in our design and thinking. I’m keen to hear examples from practitioners and leaders in L&D for how they not only raise awareness of cognitive bias but also how they actively work to address where it is having a negative impact on others.

About the author – Sukh Pabial:

Sukh is an occupational psychologist by profession and is passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce. Sukh is Talent Development Partner at Reed Business Information.

Connect with Sukh on LinkedIn

Follow Sukh on Twitter @SukhPabial

1 Comment
  1. Jeni Brown 2 years ago

    Thanks for raising this issue Sukh, it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently at LSE (London School of Economics and Political Science). We’ve made a few in-roads in our own provision for students over the last few years, including ensuring all our materials are dyslexic-friendly by default, training our student facilitators in recognizing and adapting for disclosed and undisclosed disabilities, and revamping various aspects of our hiring process to increase the chances of women and BAME students applying and being successful at interview. I wrote a bit about these efforts in a blog piece for UCISA last month (

    I look forward to hearing what others have done, and am more than happy to share info from our own practice as well.

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