There’s a human tendency to hold on to “truths” for dear life, regardless of events that bring their veracity into question. In fact, we tend to go even further—see belief perseverance, or the strange phenomenon of the mind holding on more tightly to a belief when faced with evidence that contradicts it.
It takes conscious effort to reevaluate and change beliefs, and this is not a moral pronouncement. All of us experience this tendency, and it’s not a failure of character. But as research increasingly shows, this effort to unlearn is a crucial part of effective L&D.
As Dom Murray defines it, unlearning is “a healthy, natural, and necessary step in the learning process: being open to different perspectives, and willing to update your beliefs when presented with new information that challenges previously-held conceptions.”
The conscious element here can’t be overstated. Michael Netzley’s language on the issue reinforces the deliberate nature of the act: “In order to [unlearn], we first need to carefully manage our mental focus and energy.”
Murray and Netzley have considerably more to offer on the topic, but this must be first understood—unlearning things is neither simple nor passive. It won’t always be easy, for those trying to unlearn beliefs or for those requesting that learners do so. This is a long way of saying that if you find yourself struggling, don’t blame yourself, and don’t think that you’re somehow not strong enough. It’s a demanding exercise—as demanding as ‘normal’ learning, in many ways.
As Murray goes to explain, a key concept in unlearning is unconscious bias. Also referred to as implicit bias, the term was defined by psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald as “attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious way, making them difficult to control.”
These factors can come into play through social conditioning, the influence of our parents, the media, our interpretation of past experiences, and much more. Murray describes their thorough integration into our cognitive systems as a “gut feeling”—that deep-seated certainty we feel on issues without knowing exactly why we’re so sure.
Murray highlights a few examples of unconscious bias that, unfortunately, occur frequently: 40% of Americans associate Southern accents with a lack of education, and candidates with names that sound ‘foreign’ receive 50% fewer interview callbacks than other candidates.
Even with only these two examples in mind, we can see that unlearning is not something targeted at trivial matters; these perceptions affect the lives of people throughout the US and the world, and removing their influence would make a significant and positive change.
Let’s pivot from the “what” and “why” of unlearning to the “how,” and consider the methods to best accomplish these significant mindset shifts. Susan Dumas provides some guidelines for facilitating unlearning as part of your L&D continuous learning efforts.
First, she urges us to “foster a sense of willingness.” That mental focus that Netzley articulated has to be present for learners to revise their conceptions, and Dumas suggests a gradual approach to ease learners into this focus. Long-time employees may be particularly used to behaving and thinking in a certain way, so taking care to assist them in the process is extremely valuable.
She also suggests that a way to “pursue the unfamiliar” is to change the location of instruction. Essentially, provide a new physical space for new ideas; while this is admittedly “a bit of psychological manipulation,” it’s not a pernicious or dishonest one.
The mind strongly associates certain locations with certain activities, and this extends to thought patterns. When you sit down at your desk for work, you can probably notice a shift not only in your posture, but your thinking; your mind puts itself in ‘work mode’, for lack of a better term. In this way, using a new location, free of associations, can help to dislodge old or unhelpful beliefs by putting the mind in a ‘new’ or ‘open’ mode.
As you face some of these challenges in the pursuit of “learning, unlearning, and relearning” (the fuller articulation of unlearning that appears in most research on the subject), it’s helpful to consider the benefits of the practice that extend even beyond removing potentially damaging unconscious biases.
“Unlearning builds greater adaptability and flexibility. It’s the key to innovation, as old ways rarely produce new results,” argues Julie Winkle Giuloni, and she’s absolutely correct. To use an ancient entertainment example, the dawn of sound in film (the advent of the ‘talkie’) created a problem that surprised many in the movie industry: some of the best stars of the silent era did not do well with audiences or critics when they had to put their voice on film.
This upset presented filmmakers with a choice: stick to the old ways, and simply keep hiring the same stars, or cast actors based on a new, expanded set of criteria that very much included their vocal abilities.
Those that chose not to unlearn their dependence on the same stars found their box office returns considerably weaker than those who put in the time and effort to find and cast new, vocally qualified actors. Their innovation, though not easy to achieve, made all the difference, allowing them to meet audience expectations and enter the new mode of moviemaking with confidence and prowess.
“Helping individuals embrace unlearning as a prerequisite for new insights, skills and results require a concerted effort throughout the organization, with support from executives, line leaders and L&D professionals alike,” Giuloni goes on. Everyone needs to commit to making changes, but the rewards are more than worth it.
It can be hard to let go of beliefs and ways of proceeding, but the benefits are too significant to avoid unlearning this beliefs. With organization-wide self-examination, your L&D professionals will see more flexible, successful learners, and your enterprise will see a quicker response to external shifts.
To use the Hollywood example once more, don’t be afraid to let go of the beliefs that can’t sing along with the times. Letting go might take effort, but you’ll only make room for better ideas, and position yourself for future success.
Can you identify unconscious biases that you carry? What would you like your fellow employees and learners to unlearn? How will you approach unlearning these beliefs—as individuals, and as an organization?