The Psychology of Learning New Skills (Faster & Easier)

The Psychology of Learning New Skills (Faster & Easier)

If you want to learn new skills, the process doesn't have to be difficult. The key is to first learn the most effective process for rapidly acquiring expertise.

In this article I'll explain how to teach your brain, or should I say teach your two brains, to learn new skills, more quickly and more easily. 

Whether that be a business-related skill such as presenting in public, or more personal goals like playing a musical instrument, or as in this following example, learning to drive a car.

But first, the science of learning

We have two learning processes in our heads, System 1 and System 2. These were popularised by Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow

Imagine taking your regular commute to work, you always know which route to take without having to consciously think about it. You automatically walk to the railway station, habitually get off at the same destination stop, and walk to your office while your mind wanders. 

It’s effortless.

But what happens if you get to the railway station and there’s a rail strike? 

While your route to the station was intuitive, you now find yourself spending some time analysing alternative ways to get to work. 

Are the buses running? Is it too cold outside to walk? If only I could drive…

Our responses to these two scenarios demonstrate the differences between our faster, more instinctive thinking, known as System 1, and our slower thinking process, known as System 2. 

System 1 

System 1 can make quick decisions, based on very little information. These fleeting impressions, and the many other shortcuts you’ve developed throughout your life, are combined to enable System 1 to make decisions quickly, without deliberation and conscious effort.

System 2 

System 2 is thinking slow. This is a more complex and mentally draining process. It’s also the process used to plan and prepare. It’s sitting down to read the highway code. System 2 is all about making rational decisions. 

Psychology researchers have found that the more complex a task is, the more likely people are to engage in System 2 decision making.

So, how do we apply psychology to learning to drive?

What follows is an account of how applying a little psychology can dramatically improve your ability to:

  1. Drive a car and
  2. Pass the practical driving test

When you sit in the driving seat of a car for the fist time, everything in front of you is alien and unnatural: System 2. 

When you first sit behind the wheel, staring at all those buttons, levers, dials, gadgets and a big wheel in the middle, it can be to say the least daunting. And when you're learning to drive a car and you first start trying to do so there is just too much to take in…

From mirror, signal, manoeuvre, to coordinating the clutch and accelerator, not to think about using your mirrors and doing everything backwards when reversing. And then there's all the other traffic!

But, as you begin to get more proficient behind the wheel, your brain is able to handle certain driving related operations using System 1; where driving feels like second nature, something you could do with your eyes closed (although we wouldn’t recommend it!)

The psychology of driving, in action!

My daughter has recently gone through this very process.

At the very start, I remember in a particular lesson, my daughter said that because I told her to concentrate on positioning the car correctly when approaching junctions, this caused her to forget to look in the mirrors - a classic case of System 2 being overloaded, and System 1 not yet being proficient enough to handle that part of the task list.

With that in mind, we decided to add a little behavioural science and 'layer' the learning. That is to say, instead of overwhelming her with different aspects to consider, we kept it simple, just practicing a few of the necessary techniques at a time. 

For example, driving along and going up through the gears, then going down through the gears. That’s it, no thought to much else.

Something we paid careful attention to in the learning process was Miller’s Law; working within the boundaries of cognitive load. 

Miller's Law states that the number of objects an average person can hold in working memory is about seven, also known as The Magical Number 7 (+/- 2). So when it comes to learning to drive a car, or learn any other skill for that matter, don't try to take on an overwhelming number of decisions to make. 

Just think for a moment how many different things your brain must handle simultaneously as you drive a car:

  • Mirrors
  • Manoeuvres
  • Seatbelts
  • Radio
  • Changing gears
  • Indicating
  • Speed checks
  • Pedestrians
  • Hazards 
  • Other drivers
  • Stopping distance
  • Blind spots
  • Distractions
  • Parking
  • Road signs 

…it’s way beyond 7 and the list goes on!

By splitting the entire process of learning to drive into smaller more mentally manageable chunks, my daughter learnt the skills much more quickly, then pieced them together like a jigsaw puzzle to nail the final outcome; driving with proficiency!

The result of applying psychology to learning to drive

So what was the upshot of applying a little Behavioural Science? And a layered, 7 +/- 2 approach to teaching System 1 and System 2 to drive a car? 

In just a few weeks, my daughter was ready for her practical test (putting aside the whole issue of booking a test any time soon; suffice to say we got a cancellation).

And just a few weeks later, she was ready for the real thing. The best part; she passed first time!

And not only that, she passed with 0 minors!

Apparently this is only achieved by 1 in every 200 candidates. The examiner was somewhat impressed too:

“This is some of the best driving I have seen…”


As System 1 learns a new aspect of driving, this frees up System 2 to think about something else. And this is precisely how my daughter learnt to drive. 

In summary, whatever you decide you want to learn, in either your business or personal life, help your brain by teaching it in the most effective way possible. Recognise the limitations of System 2, help System 1 to do as much as possible, and be mindful of Millers Law as you learn.

Adcock Solutions offer Behavioural Science insights and expertise that improves product visibility, appeal, engagement, and sales. We help put an end to spray and pray marketing by helping clients understand the minds of their customers.

Adcock Solutions have been improving the communications of leading brands and retailers for 25 years.

So, if you have any questions, please drop us a line.

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About Phillip Adcock

My name is Phillip Adcock: I have more than 30 years of human behavioural research and analysis, and have developed a unique ability to identify what it is that makes people psychologically and physiologically 'tick'.

Would you like to know more about how shoppers and consumers think? Download my FREE guide now. Alternatively, check out, where there are more FREE downloads available there. Or why not simply email me with what's on your mind?

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Phillip Adcock

Phillip Adcock CMRS
Psychology & Behaviour
Change Consultant

Phillips Signature

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