Is it the rising lack of trust in what anyone says? Have we turned into a society where any crazy marketing works? It certainly seems that way. It was only a couple of weeks ago I went on a rant, and yet, here we are again. A new twitter account (*not without controversy) @badlearning, has started taking on posts citing myths. And one caught my attention (not least because the stream mentioned the myths book ;). It got interesting when the marketing manager responded. Yet, I still will argue that it’s just more myths-based marketing.
*For context, it quickly got noticed amongst my colleagues. One colleague wasn’t sure that confronting myths was the appropriate approach. The particular issue (as several of us do that) was the anonymity of the poster. And blatantly calling out the flaws. You’ll note I don’t point to the perpetrator, just the error. I’m not going down the path of determining right or wrong, as I can see the concern, but also the potential for harm… For full disclosure.
Digital Natives/Generations (& Goldfish) Myths
The post in question was announcing a new initiative, specifically “nano-learning” to address the new generation with a plan for “digital native advancement”. And, to my surprise when I chased the links, they pointed to Pew Research Center data. Which I generally think of as a reputable group. And, they have their categorizations defined, and used Census data as a basis to do the analysis.
One problem arises in their definitions of generations. Their bands (e.g. 1965 to 1980 for Gen X) aren’t constant across different proposals for generations! How can you be claiming results for a group when there are fuzzy boundaries? I can create arbitrary boundaries and likely find differences.
And it’s also trying to define a category when it’s a continuum. One piece of data says the new generation will be more mixed. But isn’t that just a trend? Isn’t the US population becoming more diverse? Why try to attach it to a generation? What good does that do? Yes, our brains do want to categorize, but that doesn’t make it right. (See below.)
The other data is more problematic. For one, they refer to their own previous post. Um, er…And another admits it’s a marketing intelligence company. Like they have no vested interests in finding divisions they can promote and prosper from. Ahem. There’s even a post from Inc. that cites the goldfish myth, which has been shown to have been misapplied data. And they’re making that claim too, as the basis of ‘nano learning’!
But also there’s a presentation with a bunch of data but it doesn’t serve to differentiate between generations. It just says things like “young folks want to go overseas”. Without noting whether that’s different than previous generations. On the other hand, that source says that more Gen Z’s than Gen Y want to start their own business. But isn’t that likely to be a trend, too?
And…a representative of the organization weighed in: “I’m not sure I agree with you on all elements. Just like any generation shift in History, the new one has its own codes and vision of the world”. Er, that would be ‘no’. The problem is assuming the generations proposal, and working from there. The notion is fundamentally flawed. There’s so much variability in context, that it’s not neatly carved out that way. This is just more myths-based marketing.
Learning Styles myth
Just to add to the rant, another post called out by the same twitter account talked about the 65% of learners being visual. And that’s learning styles, but it turns out to be a whole separate myth as well. There’s a story, of course.
Tracked back by Jo Cook, the 65% figure has been retracted by the originator (much like the 7-38-55 myth). Yet it continues to appear. Not least by marketers pushing visual solutions. She points out that you can’t trust Forbes. There’s a cite, and it turns out that article goes down a rabbit hole of cascading web cites, ultimately leading to the now retracted claim, which isn’t really even in the data!
And, really, it’s a learning styles issue, because this is talking about how you learn. Which has been debunked. It’s not that learners don’t differ, it’s just that they vary so much by context (what/how/where/why/when they’re learning). And, there’s no evidence that adapting learning to learners is better.
Interestingly, the post author justified (not to me) the claim thusly: “Since you have never run a training dept/division or L&D or taught at uni, I. E. Never been in the real world and seen it in action, then you shouldn’t hide behind articles. I talked to other L&D and training execs and ID execs they all agreed with LS situational.” Um, I have taught at uni, and have a Ph.D. in cog psych. And I’ve researched this. As has Jo. And it’s wrong. And all the anecdotes from people (some who may have invested and thus have a vested interest in it being true), doesn’t change that.
Empirical research is tested on the real world. The problem with these things is, specifically, that it ‘feels right’. But it’s not. Worse, it’s harmful. It’s myths-based marketing again. And it’s not that we might not eventually be able to identify learning styles, but right now we can’t. And, we have a better basis for decisions anyway.
Avoiding myths-based marketing
There are many flaws in what’s transpired here. People are using bad sources, not researching, and making claims that justify their work. Which doesn’t make it right.
For one, they’re suffering from confirmation bias. That’s when you only look for data that agrees with what you want to believe. Here, there’s robust counter-evidence.
And they’re not using good sources. Just because someone claims something and has a link, that doesn’t count as good evidence. Anecdotes can be data, but triangulation helps. As does aggregation and assessment of alternatives.
And the reasoning about the data is flawed. For instance, we can create artificial boundaries, and cite trends. So, X has been going up steadily for Y period. I could break Y into two pieces, and say that the second period has a higher average X than the previous period, and therefore the two periods are different. But it’s a continuum. It’s artificial and arbitrary.
We need to do better, as an industry. You don’t see executives using astrology to plot business plans. You don’t see product managers using alchemy to determine the next market offering. We have to stop using pseudo-science, and start using the results of research on learning. We need to avoid more myths-based marketing. Please!
Off the top of my head, I think there are a few issues that contribute to it all.
1) The general angle toward anti-intellectualism in the US leads to a constant mistrust of actual scientifically-obtained data.
2) Something that feels intuitive but is wrong is easier to believe than something that doesn’t but is right.
3) Good practice in this industry is comes from the science of learning, but the people who have products to sell can speak much louder. You see this in K-12 education as well, where the companies who develop the mandated standardized tests are of course the biggest political advocates for their use. It’s less political for corporate L&D, but not dissimilar.
That doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless of course, not as long as we’re willing to fight the good fight.
DM, I think your points are apt. It’s easy to go with the gut (2), and we have fewer gut-*checks* (1). And we are fighting vested interest. Guess we will keep have to keep plugging away.
Rob Moser says
Sort of aside from your central point, but I am constantly astounded by how much of marketing seems to be based entirely on mythology. A friend of mine was working for a company running software that automatically placed ads in various media for them. At a meeting, he proposed that they track when and where those ads were placed, and what the surrounding content was, and correlate that with clicks on their website “so we can see which ads are having the most effect.” He received blank looks from the entire room. No one had ever considered actually tracking the effectiveness of their ads.
Or take political advertising as an example. We all know that candidates spend millions of dollars on ad spots and yard signs. Do people really change who they’re going to vote for because they drove past a yard sign 3 months before the election? I find that… problematic to believe, and I would like to see some research please. Personally, I’m still voting for the first (non-horrific) candidate who takes their entire ad budget and donates it to a decent charity…