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In this week’s newsletter, we’re expanding our coverage of seductive details. This topic has been covered few times before in LSW, particularly in Issue #39. Of course, as science grows - LSW does too! So this week we’re going into two more pieces on the topic. Specifically, we're addressing:

  • Does seductive detail format impact learning differentially?
  • When is it important to consider seductive details?


Seductive Texts: Longer is Better

Seductive details include “​​interesting but irrelevant information that are not necessary to achieve the instructional objective” (Rey, 2012). To be honest, I think many of us are guilty of including these, particularly when we first started with creating slide decks.

Luckily, we’ve since learned better than to include *so many* distractors. But, are they always distractors? Wang et al. (2021) identified a gap in the current literature. While there are studies illustrating that people generally learn better when seductive details are excluded, does the format and length of the details matter?

Wang and their team investigated pictures, text, and short-/long-form seductive details in a two part study (2021). In the first experiment, learners were randomly assigned to one of 3 groups: no seductive images, a single seductive image per screen, or multiple seductive images per screen. Through the five screens, learners were learning about atomic structures and subatomic particles; instructional information was presented through text on the screen. The second experiment was similar, focusing instead on seductive text. The topic for the second experiment was on deglutition. Learners were split into one of 3 groups: no seductive details, shorter seductive details, and longer seductive details. In both experiments, learners reported on their interest, three types of cognitive load, and learning performance. Learning performance “was assessed with a test consisting of two parts that we associated with retention and transfer” (Wang et al., 2021).

Regarding findings from the first experiment on seductive images, there were no significant differences between groups on learning retention or transfer. Past research has also illustrated that seductive images may not actually be harmful for learning, so these results support those previous findings (Tsai, Wu, & Chen, 2019). One point that may be important here is that they used static images. Therefore, we cannot, in good faith, assume this also applies to moving images (i.e., our best friend, the GIF).

Seductive text groups illustrated a bit of a different trend. While no significant differences were found for retention, the long seductive details group significantly outperformed learners in the short- and no-seductive groups in learning transfer (Wang et al., 2021). Thus, long seductive text (in this case, an extra 220 words) may actually improve learning transfer compared to no seductive text (Wang et al., 2021).

Something I find interesting about the text is that the information presented may not have been truly “seductive,” according to some definitions. While it was not directly related to mastication, it did reference teeth enamel, how individuals can care for their teeth enamel, and esophagus cancer (Wang et al., 2021). Thus, it seems as though the “seductive text” may have actually prompted learners to think about transferring the knowledge they were taking in. However, it may have been more practical that the information was slightly related - how often do we add something that is truly “out of left field,” so to speak? The inclusion of this type of seductive detail may be closer to reality than other studies.

Overall, these findings add to a growing body of research failing to identify the negative effects of seductive details. While many studies pre-2015 found the effect, it seems to be diminishing in recent years. Whether this is the actual effect diminishing or journals publishing null results, it’s difficult to say.

When creating content, do you feel like you’d like to add more context for learners? Proceed with some caution, but go for it! Those longer seductive texts may lead to deeper processing and enhanced learning.

*Editor note on learners in this study: participants in this study were middle school students. Of course, we do know that there are learning differences between children and adults. However, this article is still beneficial because 1. it adds to the knowledge of seductive details and should be replicated with adults & 2. we might expect children to be more susceptible to the seductive detail effect (i.e., lower inhibitory control, etc.), which makes the null finding even more interesting, in my opinion.

Key Takeaway: While seductive details may be concerning as they have gotten a bit of “buzz,” more research is failing to find a negative learning effect (granted, much more research should be done in the field). However, if the seductive detail effect is holding you back from adding more context for learners, it might be worth a second look. Longer seductive texts seem to improve learner interest and learning transfer, likely through the mechanism of deeper processing.

Read More ($): Wang, Z., Ardasheva, Y., Carbonneau, K., & Liu, Q. (2021). Testing the seductive details effect: Does the format or the amount of seductive details matter?. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 35(3), 761-774.


"Seductive details—although quite alluring—likely serve only as harmless diversions or momentary flings to those who are highly competent readers or listeners, or those who are well informed about the topic or domain at hand." - Alexander (2019)

Commentary - Let’s Get Practical

Our second article this week is a commentary piece about seductive details. While we generally cover experimental pieces, commentary pieces from the scientific community are particularly important when findings are mixed on a topic. These types of articles help scientists to connect, further understand a problem, and potentially troubleshoot research methods. In this piece on seductive details, Dr. Alexander explores “why, when, and for whom seductive details matter” (2019).

As mentioned in the review of Wang et al. (2021), what is classified as a “seductive detail” varies per researcher. Sometimes a seductive detail is one that must be “interesting but irrelevant to goals,” while other times it might focus on task relevance, or may not focus on interest at all. While Alexander (2019) touches on incredibly crucial points, the discussion of contextual factors and practicality of seductive detail work were what resonated with me the most.

Throughout the last few decades, studies have attempted to “establish the ‘boundary’ conditions related to seductive detail effects” (Alexander, 2019). However, this type of research seems to step farther away from what instruction actually is. For instance, studies may include very long and dry passages about some particular topic, with a “seductive detail” or image placed conspicuously near the text. In reality, is that how instructional designers are functioning? Not so much! Thus, while the research is still valid and helpful to the literature at large, work assessing seductive details should be conducted within the context of what practitioners are actually doing.

Alexander (2019) rounds out the piece by discussing seductive details for what the recent research points to them being - “harmless diversions” that may drum up some interest/deeper thinking, but mostly seem to just flutter away without affecting learning. Alexander 2019) suggests that we craft instructional materials that are “linguistically appealing,” and link the “enticing content” to our learning objectives. Considering we are unlikely to draft very dry materials without images for our learners, research should have “more direct relevance to typical learners’ reading of typical texts under typical conditions” (Alexander, 2019).

Key Takeaway: While early work on seductive details pointed toward negative effects, more recent research with typical conditions does not support a negative impact. While we still may not want to include loud, flashy images/videos/GIFs/etc., a typical amount of “details” does not seem to diminish learning. Focus on creating quality content utilizing evidence-based instructional principles.

Read More ($): Alexander, P. A. (2019). The art (and science) of seduction: Why, when, and for whom seductive details matter. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 33(1).


Extra! Extra! Read All About It! 🗞️

I’d also like to point out an article that addresses confounds and method issues in seductive detail research. Tislar & Steelman (2021) identified a list of methodological concerns and confounds within existing seductive detail work, found solutions, and conducted an experiment with those “fixes.” Their results were also mixed and did not paint a particularly clear picture of the seductive detail effect, adding to the growing body of work that is not finding a robust negative impact. The study is very thorough and, quite frankly, just really cool 😎

I encourage you to check it out, since it is open access!

Read More (Open): Tislar, K. L., & Steelman, K. S. (2021). Inconsistent seduction: Addressing confounds and methodological issues in the study of the seductive detail effect. Brain and Behavior, 11(9).


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Learning Science Weekly is written and edited by Katie Erhardt, Ph.D.

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