Seductive details


Teach and/or support learning

How students learn, both generally and within their subject/disciplinary area(s)

What can I do?


Cut what isn't core, highlight what is.

  • Get rid of anything that isn't important to helping students master the learning objectives
  • Use stories and graphics only when they focus on key misconceptions and key learning content

What is this about?

In the context of higher education, seductive details are non-essential or irrelevant details that can distract or mislead the learner, making it more difficult for them to understand and remember new information. Seductive details can take many forms, such as colourful graphics, catchy slogans, or interesting anecdotes, and are often included in educational materials with the intention of making them more appealing or engaging.

What's the evidence say?

Cat memes are seductive details: interesting but irrelevant information. Coherence—where all content relates to key points—is better practice.

Examples of seductive details:

  • Quirky GIFs and memes
  • Stories and anecdotes with tenuous links to the key point
  • Flashy and stimulating—but distracting—animations (not those that help explain content)

Note: We understand how tempting it is to use these. They are often funny. That's the problem. Students remember what's funny, but forget what we're actually trying to teach. Rarely does the joke or story actually help people remember the core content.

Adding interesting but irrelevant information to multimedia presentations hurts student learning.

When students are presented with key information alongside seductive details, they demonstrate poorer learning outcomes in retention and transfer than when they're just presented with the key information.

We should, therefore, consider the use of the redundancy principle.

The amount and kind of seductive details influences learning.

The more seductive detail in a multimedia presentation, the larger the negative effect on student learning. Also, while seductive text hampers learning, seductive illustrations are the most damaging. These findings are relevant for both retention and transfer.

Seductive details confuse learners; they don't know what's important and what's not.

Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning suggests we only have a limited working memory while learning. Our brains are particularly enthralled by novel, humour stimuli. As a result, seductive details are likely to fill our working memory, making it hard to fit the core content required for the learning objectives.

What's the underlying theory?

There are several theories that help explain the effects of seductive detail on student outcomes in higher education. These include cognitive load theory, which suggests that the cognitive system has a limited capacity to process and remember new information, and that the use of seductive details can increase cognitive load and hinder learning; and information processing theory, which emphasizes the importance of selective attention in learning, and suggests that seductive details can divert the learner's attention away from the most important information. Together, these theories suggest that seductive details can have a negative impact on learning in higher education, as they can distract or mislead the learner and make it more difficult for them to understand and remember new concepts.

Where does the evidence come from?

We can be very confident in this effect. The largest and most recent meta-analysis on seductive details (Sundararajan & Adescope, 2020) is a systematic review of randomised trials (➕➕➕➕➕). The confidence intervals were narrow, it assessed a range of contexts, there was a dose-response relationship (bonus ➕) and there was a low risk of publication bias. The review, however, did not assess study quality (➖) and there was unclear residual heterogeneity (➖).


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

Sundararajan, N., & Adesope, O. O. (2020). Keep it coherent: A meta-analysis of the seductive details effect. Educational Psychology Review, 32, 707-734.

Additional Resources

We made this one-page summary of good multimedia design. It pulls together most of the key strategies of Cognitive Load Theory. We also made a 30-minute series of videos on the topic here (key video for this summary at the bottom of this page.