Against Interesting Details

From the December Journal of Experimental Psychology:

In Experiment 1, students received an illustrated booklet, PowerPoint presentation, or narrated animation that explained 6 steps in how a cold virus infects the human body. The material included 6 high-interest details mainly about the role of viruses in sex or death (high group) or 6 low-interest details consisting of facts and health tips about viruses (low group). The low group outperformed the high group across all 3 media on a subsequent test of problem-solving transfer (d = .80) but not retention (d = .05). In Experiment 2, students who studied a PowerPoint lesson explaining the steps in how digestion works performed better on a problem-solving transfer test if the lesson contained 7 low-interest details rather than 7 high-interest details (d = .86), but the groups did not differ on retention (d = .26). In both experiments, as the interestingness of details was increased, student understanding decreased (as measured by transfer). Results are consistent with a cognitive theory of multimedia learning, in which highly interesting details sap processing capacity away from deeper cognitive processing of the core material during learning.

For this reason I tend to disagree with most people about who are the best speakers and writers.  Most people prefer those with lots of interesting tidbits; I prefer those that stay focused on and deliver a key interesting point. 

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  • Aaron

    That was the main lesson of the public speaking course I took in college; people will remember one point from your presentation, no matter how many extra points you cram into it. Best to make sure that the point they remember is the one you wanted them to remember.

  • http://radicallyamerican.wordpress.com Jake Russ

    Could you give us a more concrete example of this dynamic? Is there a particular author who you think displays the “focus on a key point” skill in their work?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/SoullessAutomaton/ a soulless automaton

    I can’t help but wonder if this is relevant to Eliezer’s posting style here.

    Also, does this account for other effects of communication? If the goals also include persuasion, emotional response, or increasing long-term interest in the subject matter (if not the specific details of the presentation), perhaps interesting details are more effective there.

    The tendency to insert more interesting details seems rather too common to be purely detrimental.

  • http://jamesdmiller.blogspot.com/ James D. Miller

    But if you are lecturing for, say, 80 minutes on a topic (such as indifference curves) that most students don’t find inherently interesting then if you don’t deliver a stream of interesting examples you will lose your audience to boredom.

    “Results are consistent with a cognitive theory of multimedia learning, in which highly interesting details sap processing capacity away from deeper cognitive processing of the core material during learning.” — Does this take into account that if students don’t find a professor’s course highly interesting then they will often skip that professor’s class?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Soulless and James, yes many listeners prefer details to a big point, and may not listen if you don’t give them what they want.

  • billswift

    “Hear it and forget it; see it and remember it; do it and learn it.”

    an old adage, source unknown (meaning I don’t care enough to Google
    for it and I have seen it many times in slightly different versions)

    I remember quite a bit from books I read back then, including the textbooks.
    The only thing I remember from the lectures I attended was a funny story
    my Zoology 101 professor told.

  • frelkins

    I have attended many difficult lectures. I remember one particular day when we were doing conic sections from Apollonius in Greek – everyone had to go to the board and demonstrate the proof they had learned, as well as successfully answer questions about it from the rest of the tutorial.

    We were doing one of the least interesting ones, I recall, but the tutor himself, who rarely spoke, took that moment to discuss why mathematics is beautiful, and geometry especially so. Instead of thinking – abscissas! – I now remember that day as a turning point in my entire education. (How on earth could anyone have such an experience in Powerpoint?)

    But this was a case to Robin’s point – there were no folksy sports references or asides involving movie catchphrases. Instead the tutor spoke wisely and from his own heart – as a result, I remain touched to this day.

    In my own work, which requires a great amount of public speaking, I attempt to emulate this moment, of speaking from the heart, of using whatever the day’s topic is to illustrate the true theme – and when I succeed at this, I am told the audience enjoys it most. Anything can be made interesting once become clear the speaker is talking from their own passion and candor.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    frelkins, yes often the key point from the listener and speaker’s point of view is the degree and type of passion the speaker feels. I don’t like those talks much myself either, but they do focus on a main point.

  • frelkins

    @Robin

    the degree and type of passion the speaker feels

    Then we agree: Lectures Aren’t About Points. They are about setting and calibrating a group emotion or sense of belonging?

  • Anonymous

    Wouldn’t it depend on relationship between the interesting details and the main point?

    Once I was participating in an online discussion about hygiene. Someone mentioned that he’d done an experiment in a biology class about the cleanliness of various body parts, and one of the results was that peoples’ hands tended to be dirtier than their genitals. My response was “so a flexible guy would be better off rubbing his eyes with his dick?”

    Sorry, I’m not usually anonymous, but I wouldn’t want to tarnish my good name!

  • http://profile.typepad.com/6p01053649010d970c/ Jay

    I’m going to have to remember this. I love to add what I consider interesting details but, as noted, the point is to make learning happen.

    Good to know, Robin.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/huono_ekonomi/ Mikko

    Then we agree: Lectures Aren’t About Points. They are about setting and calibrating a group emotion or sense of belonging?

    Basic treatises on rhetoric emphasize that some specific patterns of emotions work better than single emotion.

  • frelkins

    @mikko

    specific patterns of emotions

    Indeed. But these books and all the speaker training I have taken stress the use of such to help guide audiences to your point and to help them remember it. Robin’s suggestion that the emotion alone is the key item impresses me as novel.

  • rnbr

    Yes, what I remember most from college was the time a Shakespeare professor was moved to tears by his discussion of the power of second chances–of redemption–in The Winter’s Tale. I now teach English myself, and the moments when I speak from the heart are the moments when my students are most attentive. My student surveys bear this out.

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