Andrew F. Heckler, Ohio State University
Vladimir M. Sloutsky, Ohio State University
Abstract: In this research program, we hypothesize that some scientific misconceptions are due to well-established effects of associative learning. In particular, we propose that learned inattention explains why learners often attend to spurious, non-causal cues and ignore fully predictive, causal cues. For example, students commonly associate force with the spurious cue velocity while ignoring the fully predictive cue acceleration. To understand this source of misconceptions and ways to counter it in detail, we first create the phenomenon in an artificial context. We study the classic associative learning phenomenon of blocking, in which one of two cues is learned to be ignored or "blocked". Since in real world learning contexts, the salience of cues often significantly differs, we modify a classic blocking design by varying the relative salience of the cues. It is found that, in accordance with predictions of learned inattention theory, the amount of blocking is increased when the blocked cue is less salient than the blocking cue and diminished in the inverse case. In addition, when studying responses to control cues, it is unexpectedly found that low salience cues were preferred over high salience cues when the blocking cue was also of low salience. This novel result may be explained by the simultaneous blocking of two separate dimensional values of the blocked cue, and may be an example of category blocking. The implications for the next steps in the research program, namely addressing how to overcome learned inattention in the lab and then in the classroom is discussed.