The Big Questions

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Absurdity and Meaninglessness Increase Learning

Learning BECAUSE it Makes No Sense

Can people learn more simply by exposing themselves to absurd or meaningless stories?

A schema refers to people's expectations. So for instance, one's schema for a card deck is that hearts are red, and spades are black. If you were to play with a deck with the colors reversed, this would disrupt your schemas.

Cognitively, schemas are important because they enable us to process and use a ton of information in the world pretty much every second of our lives with minimal effort and fuss. To put this in perspective, imagine going some place entirely new where you have no idea what to expect. The sheer effort exerted in trying to function without your usual schemas would be exhausting.

Research shows that we are motivated to maintain our existing schemas. One such line of research is based on the meaning maintenance model (by Steven Heine, Travis Proulx and Kathleen Vohs). From this perspective, people's need for things to make sense (to be meaningful, and consistent with their schemas/expectations) is so strong that when it is disrupted, people act with increased efforts to restore their "meaning frameworks."

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So for instance, in one study, the experimenter was switched halfway through a study (or was not). The meaning/schema threat of an experimenter switching unexpectedly lead participants to be more harsh to people who violated their moral beliefs (i.e., to assess more desired bond for a prostitute). They affirmed their sense of meaning by showing increased defense of their beliefs and values.

So what does any of this have to do with learning?

Well, in one study Proulx and Heine exposed participants to a story written by Franz Kafka. The story starts out with a clear story line (a doctor heading out to help with a child's tooth ache) and ends with a series of meaningless statements. From the perspective of the meaning maintenance model, this should elicit an increased need to affirm and validate one's sources of meaning (one's schemas and expectations).

In this study, this occured through an increased ability to learn a new language. Specifically, participants were exposed to a list of digits, and then were more likely to detect patterns in a made up grammar system when they had just read the absurd, meaninglessness story by Kafka.

Put differently, when people had their schema threatened by reading something that did not make sense, they responded with an increased capacity to learn.

I think this research has several interesting implications. For starters, schemas serve many useful functions. But, when schemas are broken, they increase learning. So, presumably, people need to overcome their natural tendency to protect their schemas to maximize their ability to learn.

In practical terms this *could* suggest that when people isolate themselves from outside information to protect their schemas (such as only watching or reading things that verify their views), they hinder not only their ability to learn about other perspectives (through a lack of information), but their ability to learn anything novel or different.

It is really interesting, I think, that when our systems of meaning are challenged, we naturally show an increased capacity to learn novel things.

Nathan Heflick completed his Ph.D. in social psychology at The University of South Florida.

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