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Scaring Them into Learning!? Using a Snake Screen to Enhance the Knowledge Transfer Effectiveness of a Web Interface. Ned Kock Sanchez School of Business Texas A&M International University. Outline of presentation. Evolutionary theorizing in IS. Evolution of psychological traits.

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Scaring Them into Learning!? Using a Snake Screen to Enhance the Knowledge Transfer Effectiveness of a Web Interface

Ned Kock

Sanchez School of Business

Texas A&M International University

outline of presentation
Outline of presentation
  • Evolutionary theorizing in IS.
  • Evolution of psychological traits.
  • Evolved psychological traits today.
  • Evolution and correlation.
  • Surprise-enhanced cognition.
  • Experiment using a snake screen.
special thanks
Special thanks
  • Ruth Chatelain-Jardon
  • Jesus Carmona
    • Ruth and Jesus are doctoral students at the Sanchez School of Business, Texas A&M International University
evolution and is key researchers
Evolution and IS: Key researchers
  • Several researchers have been conducting evolutionary theorizing in information systems (IS):
    • Chon Abraham, Iris Junglas, Blake Ives, Rick Watson (basic human drives and behavior toward technology).
    • Gad Saad, Barbara Fasolo, Alison Lenton, Peter Todd, (online mate selection).
    • Don Hantula, Diane Brockman, Carter Smith, Amy Rajala (electronic consumer behavior).
    • Geoffrey Hubona, Gregory Shirah (electronic user interface design).
    • John Mingers (autopoiesis and self-organizing information sytems).
    • Jaana Porra, Michael Parks (colonial systems and virtual communities).
    • Amanda Spink, Charles Cole (information search and use behavior).
evolutionary theorizing in is
Evolutionary theorizing in IS
  • Evolutionary theorizing in IS may take many forms.
  • One of these forms is theorizing about the survival-related evolution of psychological traits among our ancestors that may be associated with interesting IS phenomena.
  • This type of theorizing may provide the key to many counterintuitive predictions of behavior toward technology.
  • Many of the evolved psychological traits (a.k.a. instincts) that influence our behavior are below our level of conscious awareness; that is, often those instincts lead to behavioral responses that are not self-evident to us.
average faces are attractive
Average faces are attractive


Our brain subconsciously performs complex computations of facial attractiveness; the result is a feeling that a face is attractive.


Average faces are generally considered more attractive.

Evolutionary reason:

Genetic diversity is generally associated with better overall health.


vertical distances seem longer
Vertical distances seem longer

Evolutionary reason:

“… vertical … surfaces present a navigation

risk … Falls

of a few meters produce serious injuries […]”


Our brain subconsciously performs biased computations of length; the result is a perceptual distortion of vertical distances.


People tend to overestimate vertical distances and underestimate horizontal distances.

Source: Jackson & Cormack (2008)

evolution of psychological traits
Evolution of psychological traits

(Through natural selection; or survival advantage)

Ancient task performance(TA )

Psychological trait(P)

Survival success(S)



The success of an individual in keeping alive in the presence of adverse environmental factors such as pathogens and predators. Can be measured through the age of an individual at the time of death.

The success with which an individual’s genes are passed on to successive generations. Measured based on the number of surviving offspring or grand-offspring of an individual.

Mental trait, or instinct, associated with a genotype. (Phenotypic trait.)

Set of interrelated genes, with a particular allele configuration.

Performance of an individual in an ancient task such as hunting or foraging.

evolved psychological traits today
Evolved psychological traits today

Modern task performance(TM )

Psychological trait(P)


Performance of an individual in modern task such as searching for information on the Web.

Mental trait, or instinct, associated with a genotype. (Phenotypic trait.)

Set of interrelated genes, with a particular allele configuration.

Key assumption:

The modern task will be similar enough to the ancient task, which will hopefully lead to observable effects associated with the evolved psychological trait P.

example attention to colors
Example: Attention to colors

Perf. foraging for nutritious fruits(TA )

Attention to colors(P)

Survival success(S)



Other than black and white.

Perf. searching for information on the Web(TM )

Attention to colors(P)


Using Web interfaces with different degrees of color use.

evolution and correlation
Evolution and correlation

Ancient task performance(TA )

Psychological trait(P)

Survival success(S)



It can be shown that, for the genotype G and the psychological trait P to evolve through selection, the following equation must be satisfied:

Measures of genotype G: 1 if genotype is present; 0 if genotype is absent in individual.

Measures of psychological trait P: 1 if trait is present; 0 if trait is absent in individual.

price s covariance theorem
Price’s covariance theorem

Price (1970) showed that for any phenotypic trait measured by Z to evolve through selection in any population of individuals, the trait must satisfy the equation below:

Since the genotype of an individual is also part of the individual’s phenotype the equation above can be re-written as:

The equation above can be re-written as shown below, in terms of the standardized measures of W and G, which are referred to as w and g. This allows for the use of the equation in the context of path analysis.

price s theorem and path analysis






Price’s theorem and path analysis

The path model shown below depicts relationships among the standardized measures of genotype, psychological trait, ancient task performance, survival success, and fitness. The path coefficients are standardized partial regression coefficients. For simplicity, error terms are not shown.





The First Law of Path Analysis states that the covariance between any two variables in a path model equals the sum of the products of all path coefficients in all paths that connect the two variables. Since there is only one path connecting w and g, this leads to the equation below:

Thus, Price’s theorem can be re-stated as:

selection and correlation
Selection and correlation

The path model does not contain competing paths; that is, it does not have any instance of multiple paths pointing to the same variable. Thus all of the path coefficients are reduced to the corresponding correlation coefficients:

Correlations between standardized variables have the same values as the correlations between the corresponding non-standardized variables, thus:

  • Notes:
  • The correlation between fitness and survival success is always positive, because an individual must be alive to procreate and pass on genes to the next generation.
  • The correlation between psychological trait and genotype is also always positive, because by definition the genotype codes for the psychological trait.
  • Therefore, evolutionary theorizing often entails searching for a psychological trait and a survival-related task performance attribute that could be correlated.
survival threats and surprise
Survival threats and surprise
  • Let us assume that:
  • The task under consideration is: avoiding survival threats after they are experienced for the first time.
  • In our evolutionary past, a common psychological element associated with experiencing survival threats was a sense of surprise.
  • In other words: Halloween was likely rare in our evolutionary past; if something surprised one of our ancestors, it was probably bad news.
  • Question:
  • What would be a good candidate for psychological trait that would enhance performance in the above task?
  • Answer:
  • Enhanced cognition within the temporal vicinity (a few minutes before and after) of surprise events.
surprise enhanced cognition
Surprise-enhanced cognition

Surprise events often occurred in a given context, where there are specific contextual markers; for instance, dangerous animals live in ecological niches with characteristic types of terrain and vegetation.

Rock formations


Venomous snake

Enhanced cognition


flashbulb memorization
Flashbulb memorization
  • The phenomenon coined flashbulb memorization (Brown & Kulik, 1977) has puzzled researchers for years.
  • The phenomenon is associated with the observation that surprise events enhance the memorization of contextual information associated with those events.
  • The enhancement involves memories of contextual information acquired shortly (e.g., a few minutes) before and after the surprise event, in what could be called an enhanced cognition zone.
enhanced cognition zone
Enhanced cognition zone

Snake appears and is taken away by heroic husband

Time 1

Time 2

Time 3

Time 4

Time 5

Time 6

Enhanced cognition zone

web based enhanced cognition
Web-based enhanced cognition

Snake screen

Module 1

Module 2

Module 3

Module 4

Module 5

Module 6

Enhanced cognition zone

the experimental task
The experimental task
  • A Web-based knowledge communication experiment was conducted with 186 student participants at a university.
  • Two experimental conditions were used.
    • A Web-based screen with a snake picture in attack position, and with a snake hissing background noise, was used to create a simulated threat in the treatment condition.
    • The screen was shown for 10 seconds in between modules 3 and 4.
    • The simulated threat was absent in the control condition.
  • In both conditions the participants were asked to review learning modules about “Incoterms”, presented to them as Web pages with written content.
    • The term “Incoterms” is an abbreviation for “International Commercial Terms”, and refers to a body of standard terminology published by the International Chamber of Commerce. The terminology is employed in international trade contracts.
test taken after the experiment
Test taken after the experiment
  • The participants were asked to take a test covering the Incoterms in the 6 modules that they had just reviewed.
  • The test contained three multiple-choice questions per module; each question had four choices, of which only one was correct.
other analyses and results
Other analyses and results
  • Other parametric (t) and non-parametric (Mann-Whitney U) comparisons of means tests.
    • Same results.
  • Generalized linear modeling (GLM) and analysis of covariance (ANCOVA).
    • The surprise-enhanced cognition effect seems to hold regardless of gender, age, or scholastic ability.
  • PLS-based analysis with latent variables added as control variables.
    • The surprise-enhanced cognition effect is still significant when we control for: (a) motivation to do well in the experiment; (b) perceived fear elicited by the simulated threat in the treatment condition; and (c) perceived degree of distraction elicited by the simulated threat in the treatment condition.
  • Barkow, J.H., Cosmides, L. & Tooby, J. (Eds) (1992). The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Brown, R. & Kulik, J. (1977). Flashbulb memories. Cognition, 5(1), 73-99.
  • Jackson, R.E., & Cormack, L.K. (2008). Evolved navigation theory and the environmental vertical illusion. Evolution and Human Behavior, 29(5), 299-304.
  • Kock, N. (2004). The psychobiological model: Towards a new theory of computer-mediated communication based on Darwinian evolution. Organization Science, 15(3), 327-348.
  • Kock, N., Chatelain-Jardón, R. and Carmona, J. (2008). An experimental study of simulated Web-based threats and their impact on knowledge communication effectiveness. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 51(2), 183-197.
  • Price, G.R. (1970). Selection and covariance. Nature, 227(1), 520-521.
  • Schutzwohl, A. (1998). Surprise and schema strength. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory & Cognition, 24(5), 1182-1199.
fear of snakes likely not innate
Fear of snakes likely not innate
  • Baby and toy cobra:
  • Baby and real cobra:
time to fixation of mutations
Time to fixation of mutations

(In diploid populations; time = number of generations;

N = population size; s = selective advantage)

  • Positive impact on fitness

2/s ln(2N)

  • Neutral impact on fitness