When Teaching Basic Information, Be Blunt

Oversimplifying is often ok. Save the subtleties for experts.

Posted Aug 21, 2018

Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images
Source: Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

One of the complexities of teaching information to people is that they have to be ready to hear the information you present. Almost 100 years ago, the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky coined the term zone of proximal development to talk about learning. This term refers to the information that people are just about ready to learn.

Vygotsky was largely focused on learning in children, but the idea applies to all people. When teaching something to another person, you have to structure the new knowledge in a way that people are able to attach it effectively to things they already know.

One aspect of this kind of teaching is that you often have to oversimplify information when you first present it. The world is complex, and it is tempting to want people to understand the full complexity right away. But, when you do that, you run the risk of misleading people.

This effect was demonstrated in studies of diabetes education by Derek Powell, Martin Keil, Dru Brenner, Liliana Lim, and Ellen Markman (who is not related to me). This paper appeared in the July, 2018 issue of the journal Psychological Science.

They looked at information about diabetes that was presented on the American Diabetes Association website at the time of the study. They had two concerns about the presentation of the information. One is that they captured people’s attention by claiming to combat ten “myths” about diabetes. The statements they described as myths were generally simplified blanket statements like “People with diabetes can’t eat sweets or chocolate.” The concern was that labeling these statements as myths might leave people with the wrong impression about the disease.

Second, to debunk the “myths,” the website provided a more nuanced and subtle discussion of the disease. For example, the discussion of sweets and chocolate talked about how small portions of sweets or chocolate might be allowed in combination with a healthy diet and exercise.

The concern about these discussions is that people just learning about the disease might be better-served by having a simplified view of aspects of diabetes. Only after gaining more expertise would they be good at interpreting the more subtle discussion the website provided.

To explore these possibilities, participants from an on-line panel were exposed to variations of the information from the website and then were given a test about diabetes knowledge related to the facts presented such as “People with diabetes can include chocolate and other sweet desserts as part of their regular diet just like people without diabetes,” which is False.

A baseline group took the test without exposure to any information. This group got about 90 percent of the questions correct on average and expressed moderate confidence in their answers.

One group just read the myths without the facts. This group performed worse, getting only about 75 percent of the answers correct. A third group saw the myths reframed as questions rather than described as myths. This group got about 90 percent of the test questions correct, suggesting that it isn’t exposure to information that makes people worse, it is labeling a set of issues as myths that led to problems.

Interestingly, two other groups saw the information framed as either myths or questions and then got the subtle discussion from the website. These groups both did poorly on the later test getting less than 75 percent of the responses correct. However, they were just as confident in their responses as those in the baseline condition (and more confident than people who saw the information labeled as myths). 

This finding suggests that most people were not able to fully comprehend the more nuanced discussion about diabetes that was presented by the website. As a result, they drew stronger conclusions than were warranted. Because they had seen information about diabetes, though, they were reasonably confident of their responses.

This work suggests that when information is being presented on websites to people who are not expected to have a lot of knowledge, it is ok to oversimplify the truth. In health contexts in particular, it is ok if people are overly cautious about what they can and cannot do. That way, people are unlikely to engage in dangerous behaviors. As they gain expertise, they may learn that their initial beliefs could be revised. But, it is better to reach that knowledge slowly rather than doing something that could create long-lasting damage.


Powell, D., Keil, M., Brenner, D., Lim, L., & Markman, E.M. (2018). Misleading health consumers through violations of communicative norms: A case study of online diabetes education. Psychological Science, 29(7), 1104-1112.