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Practice Makes Perfect?: U-Shaped Learning Curves

By understanding the U-Shaped Learning Curve, your company can not only pinpoint patterns and trends in consumer errors as they search for the right product, but also help consumers to end their trial-and-error process by providing the tools needed to arrive at satisfaction.

Editor’s Note: With all of the discussion of Daniel Kahneman’s work we’ve heard over the past several years, you would expect the more market researchers would mine the psychological literature for other theories that could inform their work.  It has actually happened less frequently than one would hope.  That is why this article by Lindsay Cannon is so interesting.  She takes an example from mid-19th century experimental psychology (some of the earliest work in the field, actually) and shows its relevance for the marketing world of today.  I hope it stimulates other such examples.

We’ve all heard it a million times. “Practice makes perfect.” But is this old adage always true? The short answer is, “Yes and no.”

In 1855, Hermann Ebbinghaus began to study learning, particularly related to word memory. He found that there is a distinct learning curve related to word memory, whereby the words one learns first and last are remembered with the most accuracy. Later psychologists also noted this curvilinear relationship in children as they develop language. They found that as children learn a new word, they first use the word correctly, followed by a period of incorrect use when trying to find new applications and settings for the term, before finding its correct function and using the word correctly in all contexts. These developmental errors are prime examples of U-Shaped Learning, with “good performance followed by bad performance followed by good performance once again” (Carlucci & Case, 2013).


U-Shaped Learning Curves apply to a myriad of different types of learning where an individual must acquire a complicated set of “rules” and learn how to apply these rules to new settings and contexts on their own, utilizing a process of trial-and-error. In today’s world, marketing professionals can help consumers navigate the learning curve by building lasting relationships to help consumers learn the “rules” in a product-rich environment in which they may feel inundated by a multitude of choices and complex technologies.

This process of trial-and-error can be frustrating for consumers, especially when seemingly simple products with an initial “honeymoon” period have a long learning phase to follow. Imagine this in practice. You are a new mother with a baby in tow for the first time in your life. Not only are you operating on little sleep, but you feel overwhelmed most of the time. Things have been going smoothly with feeding and diapering, and you have been using the cheapest brand of diapers you can find in order to save money.

However, recently, your baby is growing quickly, and you notice that the diapers you relied on for the first three months just aren’t doing the trick anymore. You muse that you must be doing something wrong while speaking to a friend. She points out that you might need to go up to a larger size, even though your baby has not reached the typical six-month diaper transition point. You hadn’t thought of that! You go up to the next size, but, after continued problems, you realize that these are too large for your baby. You feel distraught and confused, so you start buying many different brands to try to find a solution.

After a few failures and plenty of loads of laundry, you stumble upon Huggies. You find that they have more options, with multiple styles and different sizing options that don’t simply correspond to your child’s anticipated monthly growth. After one successful purchase, you go online to print off some coupons and even find a helpful “Tips & Advice” section on their website.



With a lot of trial-and-error, in conjunction with some helpful tips from Huggies, you finally have a product that meets your needs and you feel more confident due to your newfound success. Not only are you now a loyal Huggies consumer, but you have converted all of your friends and family to the brand as well.

Now, let’s take an example of a more complicated product that has a similar learning curve. You are looking for a new vehicle that is both safe and has all of the features that will make modern driving more enjoyable. You decide on a new car that your friend recommended to you, and after a test drive in their model, you strike out to the dealership, sign the contract, agree on a financing plan, and drive away confident in your new acquisition. However, that’s when the trouble starts. Your car has so many features and capabilities that seemed impressive when you had the help of your friend, but now that you own the car and are on your own, you feel confused and frustrated by all of these new features. You pull out the car’s manual to read up, feeling irritated that someone at the dealership didn’t sit down with you and give you a run through, even just for the basics. After some reading, calls to your friend, and a long process of feeling stymied by the car’s technology, you start to get the hang of some of the features and feel more comfortable in your vehicle.

Both customers eventually made it to the other side of the U-Shaped Learning Curve, although it took much experimentation (and a lot of frustration). However, the first consumer’s process was expedited by some useful tools provided by a brand that she came to love. This complicated process was made easier by some additional guidance that taught her how to more effectively apply the “rules” with which she entered the process. Through this guidance, the brand not only helped a consumer end their tumultuous search, but also gained a loyal customer and an unofficial brand spokesperson. The same cannot be said for the second consumer, who was left to learn the “rules” on their own and had a much more extensive learning process, fraught with frustration. Here, the car manufacturer and dealer missed opportunities to expedite the learning process through simple tutorials, that could even be automated into the car’s system. In this case, both the carmakers and dealers missed out on a valuable opportunity to build an ongoing relationship with a consumer.

By understanding the U-Shaped Learning Curve, your company can not only pinpoint patterns and trends in consumer errors as they search for the right product, but you can also help consumers to end their trial-and-error process and build relationships with existing consumers by providing the tools needed to arrive at satisfaction with your product. Though practice might not make perfect, methods to help your consumers navigate the trial-and-error more quickly will help you come pretty close.



Carlucci, L., & Case, J. (2013). On the necessity of u-shaped learning. Topics in Cognitive

    Science, 5, 56-88.

Case, J. (n.d.). Theory of u-shaped learning. Retrieved from


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