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Relationships are Learning Environments

Is yours “wicked” or “kind”?

Every decision involves a prediction about the future. I choose the spaghetti Bolognese because I predict that I’ll enjoy it more than the fettuccine Alfredo. I buy the Honda Civic because I predict it’ll be more dependable than the Toyota Corolla. I predict that my current relationship will remain happy and stable, so I decide to propose marriage.

None of us has a crystal ball that lets us see into the future. The best we can do is assume the future will be a lot like the past. In fact, the whole purpose of memory is to store past experiences that might help us predict what’s coming next.

Using the past to predict the future can be an effective strategy, but only as long as our personal experiences are similar to our present situation. In a recent article in journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, psychologist Robin Hogarth and his colleagues refer to cases when the past resembles the present as “kind” learning environments.

As a good example from everyday life, we’re often able to predict how friends and family members will react in a particular situation. This is because people tend to be consistent in their behaviors, and so we pick up patterns over time. In Hogarth and colleague’s terms, our loved ones have provided us with a “kind” environment for learning their personalities.

However, as the researchers point out, not all learning environments are kind. Sometimes, our past experiences can seduce us into thinking we have a handle on the present when in fact we don’t. This happens when the current situation appears similar to others we’ve encountered in the past but is in fact fundamentally different. Hogarth and colleagues refer to these cases as “wicked” learning environments.

Half a century of research on human decision making has shown that we’re often not very good at it. Our minds are riddled with cognitive biases that lead us astray, and it’s not uncommon for us to make bad decisions even when the information needed to make a good one is available to us. In the lab, psychologists have amply demonstrated that humans often disregard pertinent information when making decisions.

Likewise in our lifestyle choices—diet and health, sex and relationships—we often make bad choices not because we don’t know better, but because we can’t help ourselves. Invariably, intuition trumps reason. And yet, if our minds are so terribly flawed, how is it that humans often can make very good decisions?

Hogarth and colleagues don’t deny that cognitive biases are responsible for many of our poor decisions. However, their distinction between “kind” and “wicked” learning environments shows us that bad decisions aren’t always the product of faulty mental mechanisms. Instead, situations can also lead us to making bad decisions.

Using the past to predict the future isn’t a cognitive bias. It’s a good decision-making process—but only if conditions remain more or less constant over time. However, when our learning environment has been wicked, sound reasoning can lead to poor choices. The key is to recognize when our past experiences are “wicked”—that is, not relevant to current circumstances.

Hogarth and colleagues recast a number of well-known cognitive biases in terms of wicked learning environments. My favorite is the “hot stove” effect. When you were two years old, you reached up and burnt your hand on the hot stove. Pain is a powerful teacher, and you didn’t need to burn yourself several times before you learned a hot stove is dangerous. Once was enough.

Yet pain can also hamper our learning and personal growth. All too often, we experience one early failure or setback and give up. For example, a New Year’s resolution to go to the gym ends on day two when we wake up with aching muscles.

The “hot-stove” effect poisons our personal relationships as well. Stoves are simple and consistent, so one burned hand provides a “kind” learning environment to guide future interactions with the appliance. But people are complex, and their behavior varies according to the situation and many other factors. One bad experience probably tells us nothing about what future encounters with that person would be like.

A rebuke from a loved one burns so much precisely because that person is so integral to our life. Any yet, how often do we recoil and retreat into a downward spiral of stonewalling and hurt feelings?

Here’s where the moral aphorism “turn the other cheek” is most appropriate. Turning the other cheek isn’t about lying down and taking abuse like a wimp. Rather, it’s about standing strong and allowing yourself to be hurt—maybe even multiple times—for the sake of working through the problems in the relationship.

It isn’t easy to stand up against an onslaught of anger and verbal abuse from a loved one. But if we can manage it, we can turn a wicked learning environment into one that’s kind both for ourselves and for others that mean so much in our lives.


Hogarth, R. M., Lejarraga, T., & Soyer, E. (2015). The two settings of kind and wicked learning environments. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24, 379-385.

David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).

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