GUEST POST: Cut It Out: Learning with Seductive Details

GUEST POST: Cut It Out: Learning with Seductive Details

By Kripa Sundar


NarayanKripa Sundararajan (Kripa Sundar), PhD, is the Learning Science Specialist at ISTE, where she manages initiatives to incorporate learning sciences in edtech procurement, policy, and classroom practice. At Washington State University, where Kripa finished her PhD, her research focused on instructional strategies (such as concept mapping and retrieval practice) and the role of individual differences on the effect of including seductive details in instructional material. You can follow her on Twitter: @KripaSundar

A picture is worth a thousand words, they say. Sometimes, we use pictures to practice dual-coding. Other times, we use pictures, jokes, fun facts, etc. to provide some much-needed respite. Have you ever wondered the trade-off with your audience’s learning? 

If you’ve heard of the seductive details effect, you probably have. Or, if you read Young’s post on designing better PowerPoint material, you probably have.

Seductive details can be text, images, audio, gifs, memes, animations – anything that is tangentially related to the content, interesting, and irrelevant to the learning objective (1) (2). The seductive details effect refers to the phenomenon where learners learn worse when seductive details are included than when they are excluded (3). Nothing can be that simple, can it?

Turns out – it is that simple

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

Overall, learners who learned with seductive details performed worse on learning tests than those who learned without seductive details, as summarized in my meta-analysis of 72 comparisons (4). The story, though, doesn’t stop there.  The extent of damage due to seductive details varied by several factors.  

The negative effect was more pronounced when seductive details were:

  • Presented in any two mediums, especially as text and audio or text and image.

  • In photo format (when images were included as seductive details).

  • Presented at the end or sprinkled through the learning material.

  • Placed closer to learning content than farther.

  • A static, continuous presence on screen.

  • Less than or up to a quarter of the text or audio length, or if a seductive image was on every page of the learning material.

  • Presented in the same formats as core content; e.g. when both seductive details and core content are presented as text and images.

  • Presented on paper.

  • Included when learners could pace their learning or back-track.

  • Evaluated by experts to be interesting and irrelevant to learning objective.

  • Included and no specific learning objectives were provided to the students.

The seductive details effect was large when recall was measured by free recall and deeper processing was measured using multiple question formats.  Interestingly, the effect size was largest when the core content material was created using three reference sources. Perhaps in this case, too many cooks did spoil the broth. My meta-analysis focused only on design of classroom-based material. Other methods that share a similar sentiment are using gimmicks, or manipulatives.

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

How do seductive details harm learning?

There are three common hypotheses on how seductive details can harm learning (1). The first hypothesis is attention distraction, which suggests that learners’ attention is directed to the seductive details rather than main content. This is the most popular hypotheses yet – to the extent that many call all distractions seductive details. The second hypothesis is coherence disruption which suggests that seductive details disrupt the building of a coherent mental map of key ideas. The third and final hypothesis is schema interference (diversion) which suggests that seductive details prime inappropriate prior knowledge which in turn can divert learners’ mapping of new knowledge to prior knowledge. Which of these is the most likely reason you ask? Well, the jury is out still with evidence for and against each of these hypotheses (3)(4).

Do seductive details harm all learners?

A seductive details effect was detected with middle school, high school, and undergraduate learners (4). Commonly, as with most multimedia learning principles (2), seductive details are more detrimental to low prior knowledge learners or those with low working memory capacity. In a follow-up study (4) to the meta-analysis I found prior knowledge and prior familiarity with content subject as significant positive predictors of learning outcome, irrespective of how frequently seductive details were included in the material. Moreover, I found that experts rating of interest and relevance were different from how students perceived seductive details, possibly due to different prior knowledge and experience levels.

Does this mean no more fun?

No! Instead of using tangentially-related information that is interesting but doesn’t help meet the learning objectives, make core content and the learning experience personally relevant, fun, and beneficial using worked examples, case studies, and other evidence-based techniques. Learning is and should be fun, always!

Infographic by Kripa Sundar. Find file  here .

Infographic by Kripa Sundar. Find file here.


(1) Harp, S. F., & Mayer, R. E. (1998). How seductive details do their damage: A theory of cognitive interest in science learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 50, 414-434.

(2) Mayer, R. E. (2014). Cognitive theory of multimedia learning. In R. E. Mayer (Ed.), The Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning (2nd ed.; pp.43–71). New York: Cambridge University Press.

(3) Rey, G. D. (2012). A review of research and a meta-analysis of the seductive detail effect. Educational Research Review, 7, 216-237.

(4) Sundararajan, N (2018). Seductive details: A meta-regression and empirical study. Pullman, WA: Washington State University