It’s virtually impossible to imagine life without learning. We come into the world armed with little more than a bunch of primitive survival instincts, but it’s thanks to our ability to learn that we start adapting to the environment, going from helpless infants into semi-autonomous children before maturing into young adults. Still, when it comes to how we learn, most of us differ considerably at every stage in that process. Now scientists are learning more about that variation and what’s behind it.
Psychologists have studied learning for over a century, but research in this area has really taken off in the last two decades. Most studies indicate that our personalities largely determine the ways we like to learn. In other words, who we are shapes how we learn. Here’s what some of the latest research has uncovered about the most common learning styles and the ways we can learn to our fullest potential.
People who are especially conscientious tend to approach learning strategically. They are “extrinsically motivated”—meaning they care about the result or how they’ll be evaluated—and avoid wasting time on the philosophical stuff. When the problems and goals are clearly defined, this pragmatic approach can work well.
Some people are the exact opposite, however. Those who are more intellectually curious, open to new experiences, aesthetically sensitive, and sensation-seeking typically adopt a deeper learning style. That means they’re more “intrinsically motivated” and prefer immersing themselves in the learning experience. These sorts of people tend to lose sense of time when they’re learning, and they’re generally interested in a variety of topics—which makes it harder for them to focus for long on any given one.
Those who are sensitive, pessimistic, and moody tend to prefer a more superficial approach to learning. This means they prioritize learning the basics and moving on to another subject or activity. Although they are also focused on results, their main concern is avoiding failure more than reaching success. Surface learning has also been found to be preferred by individuals who aren’t as open to new experiences, which makes it the approximate opposite of deep learning.
Contrary to what these findings may suggest, though, no learning style is universally “better” than any other. People will learn more when they’re each allowed to follow their preferred learning approach. In other words, when we play to the learning styles that fit our personalities, we actually learn more efficiently. In academic settings, psychologists have shown every type of learner performs better when learning the way they prefer to.
But the implications even outside formal education contexts are clear—one size doesn’t fit all. Although customized learning programs aren’t yet widespread, differentiated instruction is becoming more common in K-12 classrooms, and in the future it seems we might benefit from curating more personality-based learning experiences in other contexts, too.
It may come as little surprise that studies have found that a person’s ability to learn is a function of their IQ, which refers to our capacity to reason and problem-solve. Even though IQ tests appear rather abstract, they’re useful because they measure our general thinking capabilities and working memory capacity. If you think of the brain like a computer processor, some brains have faster processing speeds and more memory space than others—two factors that affect how much and how quickly any given brain can learn, particularly under time pressure.
But IQ is just one piece of it. A second factor in learning potential is a person’s “typical intellectual engagement level.” Unlike IQ, this doesn’t refer to what someone can learn but what they’re likely to learn. That is, some people are generally more interested in learning than others: They gravitate toward books, keep up with current events, and enjoy solving brain-teasers and puzzles.
In colloquial terms, it’s much the same as having a “hungry mind”; in Google’s, it’s being a “learning animal.” To some extent, that’s everyone. But what Google has in mind when it uses the phrase to describe its ideal employee is someone who’s constantly trying to learn new things. They know what they don’t know and think of those deficits as knowledge gaps they’re always striving to fill—which keeps them asking “why?”
Finally, there’s genetics. Studies of identical twins (who share 100% of their DNA) and fraternal twins (who share 50% of their DNA), suggest that our predisposition to acquire general knowledge is mostly hereditary. Being genetically related to someone is a strong predictor that we’ll share a range of other traits with them, including learning styles.
While that idea may sound like a sharp curb to free will, it’s important to keep it in perspective. Physical attributes like height and weight are more heritable than any psychological trait. Still, our genes clearly predispose us to learn better in some ways than in others. So if you’re a certain kind of learner, chances are good you’ve got a parent or sibling who is, too.