Learning Myth #5: People Process Visual Information 60,000 Times Faster Than Text

If you have been following our series on learning myths you know that some “myths” are not really myths but are exaggerations or vendor hype grounded on some level of evidence. When I first saw this claim a few years ago the dial on my myth detector flew off the scale.  Surely no one actually believes this claim? At the time I thought it was so preposterous that I actually forgot about it. But recently I found the claim on a learning vendor’s web site, so I googled it and it’s everywhere! It’s a claim that has sort of taken on a life of its own, kind of like “we only use 10% of our brains.” So, I started wondering where this all started. I assumed it was a relatively recent claim, because I hadn’t seen it until a few years ago. But where did it come from?

Fortunately, someone before me had done the hard detective work so I didn’t have to. Alan Levine has written a series of blog posts about this claim and if you are inclined to read all the gory details they are here.

It seems to have been first claimed in an information brochure (not a research study) from 3M sometime in the 1980s, or maybe even earlier than that. It’s not clear. But in any event, it has been repeated so often that many just accept it.

And it does have the patina of truth. We all know the expression, “A picture is worth a thousand words” — which is often incorrectly attributed to Confucius (yet another myth). We also know, anecdotally, that our learners enjoy learning from videos and animations. A recent survey by Pearson revealed that Gen Z’s favorite learning platform is YouTube, and for Millennials it’s a close second:

Pearson Survey

But why 1,000? Why 60,000? (Remember, if the numbers are nice and round they are probably not valid.)

So, what do we know about pictures and text?

Chairs

We do know that people remember visuals better than text.  This is known as the Picture Superiority Effect and it has been demonstrated in many studies. There is not 100% consensus on why, but one theory is that pictures are stored twice in the brain, once as an image code and once as a verbal code and are therefore easier to retrieve.

Conclusion: Like many learning myths there is a kernel of truth to this claim. Images are recalled better than words. But 60,000 time faster? Not likely. Probably not even 1,000.

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