An experimental study of simulated web-based threats and their impact on knowledge communication effectiveness

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IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication


It is evolutionarily adaptive for humans to have enhanced memories of events surrounding surprise situations, because in our ancestral past surprise situations were often associated with survival threats. Vividly remembering memories immediately before and after a snake attack, for example, allowed our hominid ancestors to be better prepared to avoid and deal with future attacks, which in turn enhanced their chances of survival. This study shows that such enhanced memorization capacity likely endowed on us by evolution can be exploited for knowledge communication through computer interfaces. A knowledge communication experiment was conducted in which subjects were asked to review web-based learning modules about International Commercial Terms (Incoterms), and then take a test on what they had learned. Data from six learning modules in two experimental conditions were contrasted. In the treatment condition, a web-based screen with a snake picture in attack position, displayed together with a hissing background noise, was used to create a simulated threat that surprised the subjects. In the control condition the simulated threat was absent. As expected, based on the evolutionary psychological view that surprise can enhance learning, the subjects in the treatment condition (i.e., with the snake screen) did approximately 28% better than those in the control condition (i.e., without the snake screen) at learning about Incoterms. This improvement occurred only for the two web-based modules immediately before and after the snake screen. Those two modules comprise what is referred to in this study as the surprise zone. There were no significant differences in learning performance between the two experimental conditions for modules outside the surprise zone. © 2008 IEEE.

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