In order to make courses engaging, particularly compliance-type courses, you may add content that is tangentially related to the topic in the hopes of motivating or entertaining the audience. These additional elements are known as seductive details.
Do these seductive details tax a learner’s limited cognitive resources or serve to motivate and energize them by increasing their interest in the subject? Researchers have been working on this question for a few decades and their conclusions, though nuanced, tend to give an unfavorable grade to the inclusion of seductive details. Yet, there are learning situations where seductive details may benefit learning.
What exactly is a seductive detail?
A seductive detail is an element added to instructional materials that is highly interesting to the audience members, but not directly relevant to the instructional goal. The seductive detail can be in the form of a text passage, a photograph, cartoon, illustration or even a video or parts of a video. A seductive detail might be background music.
The Seductive Details Effect
Much research has verified that the seductive detail effect can “reduce the recall and/or comprehension of learning information” (Wang and Adesope, 2015). The principle states that people learn more deeply from multimedia when these interesting but irrelevant details are excluded (Harp & Mayer, 1997). In one meta-analysis of studies, Rey (2012) found that seductive details negatively affect both retention (small to medium effect) and learning transfer (medium effect).
What are some examples?
You can find lots of seductive detail examples in the research that parallel what you might find in workplace learning. These include: text passages with additional verbiage, irrelevant content in lectures, captioned illustrations with extraneous text, irrelevant pictures on slides and emotional but extraneous photographs.
Here are a few specific examples of extraneous details:
- In a passage about lightning formation, researchers included a photograph of a football player who had been struck by lightning, gazing at his uniform.
- A lesson about early mail delivery systems in distance education included a photograph of a popular movie star.
- A course on laparoscopic suturing for novices included a video segment about improving suturing performance by playing video games.
- In two different explanatory animations, researchers added background music to one and sounds to the other.
How do seductive details interfere with learning?
Evidence points to a few possible reasons that seductive details reduce retention and learning transfer in many learning situations. Two key reasons are cognitive overload and schema interference.
High Cognitive Load: A primary explanation is that seductive details overload working memory. Due to the fact that working memory is limited in capacity and duration, processing extraneous material may reduce a learner’s ability to process the essential material (Mayer, 2005). The inclusion of entertaining but irrelevant material may decrease a learner’s ability to synthesize the new information needed for skill acquisition and learning (Gardner et. al., 2016).
Interference with Building Schemas: Another explanation is that additional details interfere with building appropriate schemas or that they disrupt the formation of a coherent mental model (Rey, 2012). Schemas are theoretical knowledge structures for mentally organizing information.
Seductive details might confuse learners as to what a lesson is about and activate irrelevant prior knowledge. The result would be that the learner has an incorrect framework for organizing knowledge. In one experiment, researchers added many seductive details at the start of a reading passage. This appeared to interfere greatly with recall and problem solving (Harp and Meyer 1998) more than when the details were introduced later.
Do seductive details ever improve learning?
With all of the negative effects that seductive details have on learning, are there some conditions in which they improve learning? In some cases, it appears that seductive details can foster learning because high-interest content can increase intrinsic motivation. This can energize learners to persevere and spend more time learning.
One study suggests that individuals who have high prior knowledge may benefit from the addition of tangential content. The hypothesis is that these learners are operating during a low cognitive load condition, so that seductive details added interest and benefited learning (Park, et.al., 2011). And another showed that seductive details increased attentional focus for trainees with high prior knowledge while reducing attentional focus in trainees with low prior knowledge (Stitzman and Johnson, 2014).
Guidelines from the Research
Here are some design guidelines drawn from the literature.
- The addition of graphics to learning materials typically improves positive feelings about learning. Use relevant and instructive graphics to improve learning and avoid irrelevant graphics, as they hinder learning (Sung and Meyer, 2012).
- Ensure that learning experiences activate relevant prior knowledge at the start so that learners build accurate knowledge structures. If you add motivational content that may be irrelevant, delay its introduction until learners have processed the essential material or not at all (Harp and Meyer, 1998).
- Avoid background music in eLearning as this appears to overload auditory working memory, interfering with retention and learning transfer (Moreno and Meyer, 2000).
- You can promote understanding by adding relevant and interesting adjuncts to a learning experience. These include summaries, explanative illustrations, and similar strategies (Harp & Mayer, 1997; Rey, 2012).
- Consider the subject matter. In one experiment, seductive details impeded learning in a lesson on earthquakes but improved understanding in a lesson on history, where images and photographs resulted in more time spent on the reading task (Wiley, 2003). Is it possible that seductive details in science, engineering and technical topics are more harmful than in less technical topics?
Watch those seductive details. The cautious approach is to avoid the use of extraneous elements that do not support the learning outcome. There is much evidence to show that this type of seductive detail detracts from learning. This is particularly true when designing for novice learners. Stay focused on helping learners achieve the instructional goal in the real world by simulating workplace performance rather than adding extraneous content.
- Gardner, A.K., Clanton, J., Jabbour, I., Scott, L., Scott, D. and Russo, M. Impact of seductive details on the acquisition and transfer of laparoscopic suturing skills: Emotionally interesting or cognitively taxing? Surgery, 160: Number 3, 580-585, 2016.
- Harp, S. F., & Mayer, R. E. The role of interest in learning from scientific text and illustrations: On the distinction between emotional and cognitive interest. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89: 92-102, 1997.
- Harp, S. F., & Mayer, R. E. How Seductive Details Do Their Damage: A Theory of Cognitive Interest in Science Learning. Journal of Educational Psychology 90: No. 3, 414-434, 1998.
- Moreno, R. and Mayer, R.E. A Coherence Effect in Multimedia Learning: The Case for Minimizing Irrelevant Sounds in the Design of Multimedia Instructional Messages. Journal of Educational Psychology 92: No. 1,117-125, 2000.
- Park, B., Moreno, R., Seufert, T. and Brünken, R. Does cognitive load moderate the seductive details effect? A multimedia study. Computers in Human Behavior 27: 5–10, 2011.
- Rey, G.D. A review of research and a meta-analysis of the seductive detail effect. Educational Research Review 7: 216–237, 2012.
- Stitzman, T. and Johnson, S. The paradox of seduction by irrelevant details: How irrelevant information helps and hinders self-regulated learning. Learning and Individual Differences, 34: August 2014, Pages 1-11.
- Sung, E. and Mayer, R.E. When graphics improve liking but not learning from online lessons. Computers in Human Behavior 28: 1618–1625, 2012.
- Wang, Z and Adesope, O. Exploring the effects of seductive details with the 4-phase model of interest. Learning and Motivation 55: 65–77, 2016.