How to overcome the illusion of learning

  • overcoming the illusion of competence in learning

Being an entrepreneur comes with benefits – a big one being job satisfaction. This makes sense as business owners tend to start their companies around topics they enjoy. Being successful in your role is dependent on how you handle situations – but also, how you learn. Learning how to learn is important in every facet, whether it’s learning new marketing techniques, learning about product development methodologies or negotiation skills. The more skills you master and the more you learn about everything, the more confidence you’ll have when inevitable problems arise.

Today we’re going to walk you through the ways you might be hindering your full learning potential. In other words, how you could be operating under a common ‘learning illusion’ –illusion of competence– and how to overcome it.

Basically, the illusions of competence encompass the idea that you think you know more than you actually do. Sounds simple but you’d be surprised how easy it is for this to fall under our radar. Essentially, this could be happening to you over and over again without you even realizing it. In this post I’m going to be explaining the illusion of competence in learning by covering four of the most common learning misconceptions.

  • Illusion of repetition
  • Illusion of confidence
  • Illusion of simplicity
  • Illusion of difficulty

After reading this article you will have the tools to determine when you are truly learning and when you’re falling victim to this illusion.  This post is based off of established academic research. Our team of psychology and neuroscience PhDs have sifted through hundreds of papers to ensure you have the fullest confidence in all our recommendations.


Illusion of repetition

Going over material multiple times doesn’t necessarily help learning.

illusion of repetition in learning

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Seems strange right? You would think that repeating and re-reading material would lead to a solid memory of those events – unfortunately this is a common misconception. Repetition has actually been shown to interfere with the ability to learn new information, especially if that information is similar to knowledge you already have. In other words, these findings suggest that it’s your ability to recognize information that increases after repeated exposure. So, repetition can actually provide a false belief that we’ve learned something when we really haven’t.

How to overcome the illusion of repetition:

The 2-minute rule

  • What to do.
    • Say you just read up on some new product development methodology and you’re thinking of trying it out. Instead of re-reading that information later on – which we now know will give us a false sense that we ‘know’ that information – take 2 minutes to regenerate that information.
  • How to do it.
    • Pretend as if you need to explain this new concept to a colleague in 2 minutes. By doing this, you’ll be forced to regenerate the information rather than just recognize it, you’ll be forced to summarize the key, important findings and you’ll have to explain the information in laymen for someone with no prior background.
  • Why it works

Take away: Repeated exposure to information gives you the illusion that you know the material very well because you have no problem recognizing the information, when in fact there are many gaps in what you have actually learned.

Overestimating our knowledge brings us into our next illusion…


Illusion of confidence

Predicted learning doesn’t reflect actual learning.

illusion of confidence in learning

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We’ve all run into those people who think their work and their capabilities are amazing but their output says otherwise. For example, Bob is the programmer you hired for your new business. On paper he looks like a great programmer but you come to realise he isn’t producing up to your standards. As soon as he joins, he suggests you should change some of your tech stack and he takes longer than he should for a simple feature release. You decide to have a conversation with him about his performance but all you’re met with is resistance. Bob truly believes he is an excellent programmer with skills that cannot be matched by anyone else.

If you’ve ever been in a situation like this one, where someone’s capabilities are far less than their predicted capabilities, you have come across what is known as the ‘illusion of confidence’ or the ‘Dunning-Kruger effect’. This effect describes the cognitive bias to inflate self-assessment whether that’s of your capabilities or information you have recently learned. In other words, we tend to overestimate how much we’ve learned from newly acquired information.

This illusion extends from classroom to everyday life. Researchers completed a study where they visited a local gun range to quiz gun hobbyists about gun safety. They found that those those who scored the lowest on their knowledge about gun safety, grossly overestimated their knowledge about firearms.

When it comes to learning new information, this ties in nicely with illusion of repetition because when we go over material multiple times, we incorrectly predict that we have learned that material. We overestimate our predicted learning and capability of retaining information. These illusions are no fault of the person but rather due to ineffective learning strategies.

How to help employees overcome the illusion of confidence:

Give more feedback!

  • But not just any feedback! Generally, when people hear constructive criticism they try to use the most expedient avenue to reject the feedback. Instead, you will want to close off avenues for this type of avoidant behaviour without creating any hostility and anger.
  • Start off your conversation with questions and then go into ways in which they can meet your expectations.
  • Example:
    • Let’s look at our example with Bob from above. We could start by asking him, What skills do you think are required to be the best programmer possible?
    • Once Bob is thinking about the various attributes required for a successful programmer, you could ask, If you discovered that your performance on one of those attributes was lacking, what are some steps you may take to correct that? Do you both agree on these steps? Suggest some others that would help meet your expectations.
    • This will then give you the opportunity to explain where your expectations lie and where you think he could improve. From there, you can go over some of the steps he said he would take and schedule a follow-up meeting for some time in the future to review.
  • Approaching a situation like this will deter an unwilling employee from getting defensive. Remember, people overestimate their abilities because they don’t know how they could be doing better or what great performance looks like. In fact, people are willing to criticize their own previous poor performance once they were given feedback and shown an example of great performance.

How to help yourself overcome the illusion of confidence:

Learn how to be abstract

  • As we will discuss in the next section, practicing easy/familiar material will give you a false expectation of knowing.
  • It is more important that you focus on difficult material within a topic to enhance your learning.
  • You can also try making material more difficult by asking yourself abstract questions.
    • If you’re trying to see what’s capable on each marketing channel (eg, Facebook/LinkedIn, Email, your blog… etc), step back and see what your strategy is and how the channels will help each other.
    • For example, you might decide that you’ll write a detailed and thorough blog post (let’s say 2000+ words), break it down into smaller emails and sequence them into a email nurturing campaign. Furthermore, you’re going to extract the pieces of information from the blog and schedule them on a daily cadence on your LinkedIn and Facebook accounts. Now you have a strategy and a more abstract understanding of your strategy.
  • How could you apply that knowledge to new situations?
    • Using the same example, say you decide to put some efforts into your public relations traction. Here you choose an industry related topic for your your rich blog article, and from there you check this topic against unique statistics that you have assembled from multiple sources – to ensure it will gain traction. Finally, you find the perfect infographic for the article and now you have a story for the media.

These strategies will give both you and your employees a framework for testing whether you’re falling under the illusion of confidence. In the next section we’re going to talk about the importance of solving problems on your own.


Illusion of simplicity

Solve problems yourself – just because you see someone solve it, doesn’t mean you’ll understand it

illusion of simplicity in learning

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Most of us have had experiences where we watch a demonstration by another professional and gotten the feeling that it is really easy (e.g. watching someone figure skate). This gives way to the illusion that we actually know how to do the task since we just watched another person do it. In psychology, this is something called cognitive fluency. It turns out, we actually prefer things that are easy to think about to those that are hard. This seems rather intuitive but there is a surprising extent to which fluency guides our thinking and also situations where we have no idea it is at play. So when it comes to learning, it is something to watch out for.

How does it guide our thinking? Well, a good example of this comes from a psychological study where shares in a company with names that are easy to pronounce, significantly outperform those with names that are hard to pronounce. This also extends to what we believe! Other studies have shown that individuals presented with factual statements, that are easier to mentally process will be more likely to believe that information. This can be done just by making the font easier to read, making the statement rhyme or simply repeating the information.

Since it guides our thinking in many ways, it is also implicated in most areas we weigh information such as the products we buy, what/who we find attractive and while learning.

How can we get caught up in the illusion of simplicity?

While reading

Remember from above? When we read or rehearse information multiple times, the processing fluency of those words gets easier. Because of this, we tend to judge the information that we are re-reading as “learned material”. This can be dangerous because it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have that information in memory but rather you are simply getting good at recognizing that information.

How to overcome the illusion of simplicity while reading:

What to do:

  • Take a step back

How to do it:

  • After you have read something for the first time. Take a step back and try to think of the information as a whole. Ask yourself questions.
  • For example:
    • As an entrepreneur you tend to wear many hats. Sometimes this requires you to understand a topic you might know little about. Say you need to understand financial projections for your business but you don’t have a strong background in this. You pour through research on how to interpret the data.
    • Take a step back, what were the key concepts and ideas?
      • Why should you look at your monthly/quarterly growth?
      • What is the importance of understanding your funnel’s performance?
    • What does it all mean collectively? Try to think about the information before going back to it.

How it works:

When someone shows you the solution to a problem rather than solving it yourself

This is a big no no when it comes to learning and one of the many reasons we think we have learned information when in fact we haven’t. Scientists believe that when we study any material we have both the ‘question’ and the ‘answer’ whereas when we need to retrieve the information later on, we only have the question – this is what causes a bias of ‘knowing’ the information. A more relevant example here is if you’re stuck on a problem at work and then you’re given the answer by a colleague, you won’t encode that information as well in your brain than if you came the conclusion yourself.

How to overcome the illusion of simplicity while solving problems:

What to do:

  • If you’re stuck on a problem, try to solve it yourself before asking for help

How to do it:

  • Identify the problem
    • This is really important, make sure you are clear on what you are trying to solve.
    • Write down all the questions you have and I mean ALL the questions. Some of the best solutions come from the silliest ones. For example, the co-founder of Nike, Bill Bowerman asked, “What would happen if I pour rubber over a waffle iron?” This rubber mold inspired Nike’s first shoe, the waffle trainer, which debuted in 1974.
  • Develop strategies
    • For example, break down your problem into smaller pieces.
    • Come up with as many solutions to the problem as possible.
    • Use heuristics: what have other people done to solve similar problems and could it work for mine?
  • Evaluate and refine solutions
    • Apply solutions to the problem(s) and evaluate their effectiveness.
    • Did this solution lead to a question being solved? If it did, move onto the next piece. If not, refine your solution. Can you alter it in any way? What part of the solution didn’t work?
  • If all else fails, ask for guidance
    • If you don’t have time to go through all these steps or don’t really care about learning the topic, ask for help. Instead of getting someone to give you the full solution, ask them to guide you or give you the next step.

How it works:

  • This process albeit tedious and time consuming can be of huge benefit.
  • Not only will you develop great problem solving skills, but you will also find that you will be able to keep that information in memory for longer.
  • You will expand your overall knowledge base for that topic which you can use as shortcuts to solving complex problems in that domain later on.

This provides us with a nice segway into our last misconception of learning: the illusion of difficulty.


Illusion of difficulty

It gets easier when you’re overwhelmed; know your mental library builds on itself.

illusion of difficulty in learning

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Learning something new, especially if it is complex, can be stressful and/or uncomfortable. This can activate an area associated with pain in the brain. Your brain will force you to look for ways to avoid this negative feeling by switching your attention to something more engaging. This is why we find it so difficult getting started with things!

Some examples of this:

  1. Learning a new language
  2. Learning how to cook
  3. Learning a new instrument
  4. Learning a new programming language

How to overcome the illusion of difficulty:

Don’t procrastinate

Procrastinating will simply fuel this cycle of feeling negative toward a particular task, shifting your mind to something more pleasant to feeling terrible about having to cram in all the work later on.

Researchers have found that one way to minimize this effect is through practice. Basically, the best way is to work through the discomfort, not long after this initial step the “pain” signals to your brain disappear.

Practice learning hard and abstract things

The more abstract a problem (meaning it is difficult to understand or grasp), the more important it is to work through the information in order to fully understand it. Human memory is better able to remember concrete information rather than abstract information. To solidify abstract or hard to grasp concepts, create examples of that information in your mind that are specific.

Here’s an example:

Think of the word ‘scarcity’. It can be described as the more rare something becomes, the more valuable it becomes. This definition contains a lot of vague elements such as, when does something become rare? and what determines it’s value? How can we make this idea more concrete in order to make it stick? Let’s try to use a specific example to illustrate this idea.

Think of coffee beans. Let’s say a major exporter of coffee beans, such as Colombia, produces very low yields of beans one year due to drought or blight. There will be a shortage of coffee beans in the world. This scarcity then drives up the price (value) of the beans.

This is a concrete example of scarcity, an abstract idea, which you will encode better.



Together, these common misconceptions of learning fall under the illusions of competence. These occur everyday without us even realizing and can contribute to ineffective learning. Understanding how these work will help you avoid falling under their constraint and lead you in the direction of effectively building your knowledge base. Let’s take a look at what we’ve covered:

Illusion of repetition

  • Going over material multiple times doesn’t necessarily help learning.
  • Instead, use the 2 minute rule! Every time you finish a key concept, give yourself a little walkthrough of what you just learned. By doing this, you’re also breaking the material into chunks which has the potential to keep you motivated. Remember, try not to use any learning materials while doing this.

Illusion of confidence

  • We tend to overestimate our abilities
    • Give your employees feedback so they know where they lie within your expectations
    • Practice abstract thinking and applying information to different contexts.

Illusion of simplicity

  • Solve problems yourself, just because you see it, doesn’t mean you’ll understand it.
    • Identify the problem
    • Develop strategies
    • Evaluate and refine the solution
    • If all else fails, ask for guidance

Illusion of difficulty

  • It gets easier, when you’re overwhelmed, know your mental library builds on itself.
    • Avoid procrastination because your brain WILL get over the initial learning discomfort and practice abstract and difficult ideas more than easier concept.

Put these suggestions into action right now and watch how much more information you retain! Hopefully these four illusions will get you on your way to being an effective learner.