Do "interesting details" really hurt learning?

Overcoming Bias has a little post that, for the most part, quotes the findings of a study on how “interesting details” affect learning.

The researchers found that “interesting details” decreased the student’s understanding (transfer), while not affecting the student’s memory (retention) of what they read/watched.

Case 1 was video trying to teach about how a cold virus infects the body.

Case 2 was a slide deck on digestion (the students read the presentation, there was no presenter).

Their Conclusion

The money quote (from the study):

Results are consistent with a cognitive theory of multimedia learning, in which highly interesting details sap processing capacity away from deeper cognitive processing of the core material during learning.

Huh. Interesting, right?

And now, some interesting details I’ve chosen for you:

  • the “interesting details” for Case 1 were not directly related to the matter at hand; they were about virii’s “role in sex and death,” not spiffy facts about the main topic, how a virus infects the body
  • the “interesting details” for Case 2 go unrecorded

This paper isn’t showing up in any of the research libraries I have subscriptions to, or I’d dig deeper.

Probable Flaws

But based on this snippety snip, I’d wager that the following problems exist with the study’s conclusion:

  • interesting details lower comprehension when they distract from the very specific topic at hand
  • “interesting” is in the eyes of the beholder (just because something’s about sex or death doesn’t make it interesting, natch—it could make the student feel uncomfortable, guilty, or disgusted, too, rather than interested)
  • intriguingly, the “interesting details” group did not remember (retain) any less, they just understood less, but they were tested on the main point, not the interesting details
  • the real key to aiding comprehension & retention is to focus, focus, focus on your point; if you can keep the focus on with interesting details, surely that will add to understanding rather than detract

Useful takeaways for every day life

Nevertheless, it serves as a good reminder that we all need from time to time: Stay on point. Which I will always imagine as a leaping dolphin with a ball on his nose, a cardboard cutout prop used in a 2nd grade writing lesson. Which kinda proves the, well, point.

Ever since my first couple talks, my presentation theory has boiled down to: A) people will only remember 1 entire thing from your 45-minute talk, so make it count, and B) making people laugh gets them more engaged, and more engaged people learn and remember more.

People balk when I tell them A, but my experience has upheld this idea. Once you choose your main point for A, that you want them to remember in full, you can only try to expose them to other ideas in the hope that they will remember them vaguely later, when they need them: Didn’t I hear about a tool for this? Maybe I should Google instead of writing my own…

Now I will be sure to reduce even further any extraneous “interesting tidbits” that are not on focus.


  1. Memory palaces have been used for thousands of years and rely on "irrelevant details". The details that aid in memorization are usually imaginary.

    Staying on point may help "cognitive understanding", but if you want people to remember your point, it helps to present it with a memorable detail.

  2. Amy says:

    Sean, I definitely agree with you. I find the study’s conclusion suspect, given the info provided.

    Their choice of interesting tidbits for the cold virus example do not further the main point of teaching people how the cold virus infects the body. The cold virus is not related to death or sex, so the "interesting details" had to be "interesting distractions." No wonder they didn’t help.

    I’m also a huge fan of cute pictures, flow charts, jokes, and canny metaphors.

  3. Ben says:

    Assuming your rule A) is true (I’m not doubting it, just stating the assumption), then how do I reliably choose X (that one key thing that I want people to remember out of that 45 minute presentation), such that the members of the audience remember X as opposed to my dreadful taste in clothes, or my choice of reeeally cool Powerpoint template?

  4. Amy says:


    People won’t remember your clothes unless they’re "incredibly" something — incredibly awesome, incredibly loud, incredibly dirty, incredibly out of touch with everyone else.

    Also, your template? Unless you spend a huge amount of time on just the design like a maniac (cough like me cough), AND you’re a good designer to start with, nobody will remember it.

    Unless you do something whacky like a hand-drawn cartoon for each slide – that’s memorable. Or your custom voice-overs for video clips from famous 70s TV shows. (Both approaches I’ve seen, and remembered.)

    Again, the "incredibly" rule applies.

    This is even more true of audiences with laptops.

    By the way, the "thing you choose" is probably not inherently memorable. You have to learn how to package it. I recommend "Make it Stick" and Kathy Sierra’s blog for learning about that.

  5. DBA says:

    The "thing you choose" is indeed not memorable more often than not.

    I, for one, wouldn’t remember most of the computer programming design practices if it wasn’t for that great Head First Design Practices book.

    The way you package the message that you wish to pass makes a great difference, should your intent be to make it stick.

    Best regards, Diogo.

  6. Ahad Bokhari says:

    I’m all for interesting details, however thats just my opinion. This wouldn’t stop me from "trying" to retain the fundamental concepts. Of course I would be noting the important things down on paper.

    Funny thing is that most people will hear what they want to hear..

    I also think understanding who your audience is before you speak is very important to your success as a presenter/writer etc etc..

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