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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Jun 3, 2022


Variety may be the spice of life, but it also helps with personal development.



Welcome to episode 140 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we bring research to life in your leadership. This week we discuss how variety can help with learning and development.

You may have heard the expression that variety is the spice of life, but variety also turns out to be important for development and learning. Research shows us that learning in a broader and more variable setting ultimately helps us to do three things:

  1. It helps us to better identify which elements are relevant

  2. It helps us to make broader generalisations

  3. It forces us to reconstruct memories - getting us out of the ruts that might otherwise trap us

Let’s take an example from the research. If an infant is learning what a dog is as a category, it’s quick and easy to just show them one type of dog. Show them that exact dog, and they will tell you that it is a dog. It takes longer to learn what a dog is if we expose that same infant to multiple types of dogs, however they’re then much better at generalising that learning to a new type of dog. If I’ve only ever seen one type of dog, I may not correctly identify a new type of dog as a dog. If instead I learned what a dog is by seeing lots of different examples, I’m much better able to correctly identify a new type of dog.

The same principle applies for adults learning a new sport. One option if I’m learning tennis would be to practice one shot over and over again. Another way could involve learning and practicing lots of different shots. The second way takes a lot longer to get us to the point where we can hit the ball over the net, but it is going to be much better in the unpredictability of a tennis match than the first approach to learning.

So variety and variability in learning is harder, but it leads to better generalisation. 

The researcher Raviv highlights a great example of this relating to face recognition.He shares that “face recognition is affected by whether people grew up in a small community (fewer than 1000 people) or in larger community (over 30,000 people). Exposure to fewer faces during childhood is associated with diminished face memory." So even in social skills like face recognition, we’re better off learning with variability and variety.

Other research highlights that even incidental exposure to something new primes us to learn more about it. There’s something about allowing ourselves to be exposed to new experiences and things that sets us up for learning. 

So how much variety is there in your job? How often in the average week are you trying things for the first time?

We all know that learning is hard - it takes effort. But if we want to maximise our learning and ability, it’s important to remember that variety is the spice of development.



Limor Raviv, Gary Lupyan, Shawn C. Green. How variability shapes learning and generalizationTrends in Cognitive Sciences, 2022; DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2022.03.007

Layla Unger, Vladimir M. Sloutsky. Ready to Learn: Incidental Exposure Fosters Category LearningPsychological Science, 2022; 095679762110614 DOI: 10.1177/09567976211061470