Cognitive Psychology: how software covers our needs 

The topic of learning goes far beyond tools, facilities, and classmates and deep into our consciousness and subconsciousness. To discover the intriguing world of deep learning, we’ve invited a very special guest to join us for an interview. 

The interview is conducted by the CEO of Serious Games.Studio – Alexander Degenhart. 

Give a warm welcome to Yasen Dimitrov! 

Yasen Dimitrov is born in 1972 in Sofia, Bulgaria. He has a Ph.D. in Psychology and works as an organizational consultant with a wealth of experience in the field of organizational training and development. He is a lecturer in Organizational Behavior and Business Psychology at the VUZF (High School of Insurance, Business, Finance, and Entrepreneurship) and is head of the Behavioral Unit, formed as part of the VUZF lab – the first behavioral research facility in Bulgaria. During his consulting and academic career, Dr. Dimitrov has conducted and participated in many international projects in the field of Business leadership, change management, and Emotional Intelligence in countries such as Austria, Australia, Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Serbia, Slovenia, UK, etc. 

He also actively participated in numerous professional organizations and in 2020 he has been appointed as a chairman of the European Association of Applied Psychology (

Alexander: We’re happy to have this discussion with you! Can you, please, elaborate a bit on your background?

Yasen: I teach at the VUZF a leading Business University situated in Sofia. I teach “Business psychology” and “Organizational behavior”. As a private consultant, I host training focused on changing certain behavioral patterns in the fields such as Emotional Intelligence, team motivation, Leadership skills, etc. 

I am a professional in the field of adult learning. A passion that I have for understanding mechanisms of people’s behavior keeps me up at night. 

Today we speak about why and how people learn, what makes them adapt to new information and methods and give up the old common patterns 

Alexander: Last year, during the corona pandemic, I came up with a new idea. My ongoing business was interrupted by social distancing, as in-person pieces of training were postponed. So I decided to reconsider my portfolio of activities, of companies I’m involved with and the universities I’m working for. I thought of what’s a topic the students might find useful for their future in terms of applicable business world knowledge. As I taught case studies and business games to students, I decided to make this bigger and started to plan the system which would provide a software platform, where people can go, play a real game where they are confronted with business-related challenges: how to think about the market, what’s important about the business model, critical financial factors, how to bring talented people on board and so on. 

When we work on software, we need to understand how to involve people. Hence, our first question to you is: 

 Do you believe that there is something in a human being so stable and natural, that it never changes? 

Yasen: You see, our world has changed dramatically over the last several years, but we have not changed as human beings and from an evolutionary perspective the unchanged pattern is the role of emotions in the process of learning. Emotions are red flags saying, “that’s important!”. In that sense, emotions are triggers for some actions. This field is still very underdeveloped in the software industry – how to grab the attention and concentration of learners throughout the screen and provoke action. Emotions are crucial here, yet software companies and content providers give little attention to emotions, although they are the ones that change our behavior. We can easily say that emotions and associations are the cornerstones of adult learning. 

Alexander: You’ve traveled a lot, is there a difference between people of different nationalities – do they learn differently

Yasen: The difference is not in the way people feel inside, but in the way, they express their emotions. For example, in Europe people mourn at funerals, while in Japan people celebrate them, despite the emotion from the core being the same in both regions. But inside we all feel the same, and in terms of learning, the same stimulus generates the same response regardless of our nationalities. 

Smartly designed software fulfills the emotional needs of people of all cultures and backgrounds, as it speaks to the core of our human nature. 

Alexander: What are the stimuli of emotions? How to implement emotional communication into the software? 

Yasen: Emotions are felt when we relate something to our own life experience or our self-image.  Emotions can relate to shared values, and we all have a set of those. We all desire to be perceived as individuals of value, we have a desire to be respected in society, and so on. If we use emotions in the context of gamification – we get a mix of behavioral science and adult learning. 

Alexander: What exactly is gamification from a psychological point of view? How to narrow this term?

Yasen: For me, gamification has become a broad and very popular term because people believe that if they have some funny elements, like pictures or sounds, that make it a game. That’s not true. Gamification for me is when the learning process is so attractive and interesting, that you no longer feel the struggles, the efforts, and overall, the formal parts of learning. You’re learning in the game, not through the usage of will and effort. And when other people do the same thing with you, and you can interact with them online, this is the closest point to social learning. 

The most stable level of learning is on the subconscious level. We learn in our social group, from people around us. And gamification and the virtual world are centered around starting to feel like a part of such groups. In this way, the learning is efficient, and it will “stick”. 

Alexander: Is the social aspect of learning crucial in terms of building software? 

Yasen: Yes, social learning is about changing behavior instead of memorizing the correct answer. Effortless learning is done through games and interactions with other people. This approach, avoiding the formalities, makes the information enjoyable, rather than stressful and questionable.  In direct learning, we question everything, but with emotional and social learning we are perceiving information subconsciously. The sky is the limit when a person enjoys learning, not struggles through it.  

Alexander: Our target group is upper managers. What should we do to catch the attention of this specific target group? 

Yasen: One trigger is addressing the same problems and challenges that they’re facing. One thing to keep in mind with executives is that the level of their “Ego” is a way higher, so connecting with the self-image is the key point of connecting with this group. Connecting to the specific problem this group is facing might be a risky way to go, but it is efficient to make users feel that you understand them, and that the content relates to their needs. You also must show them how much you value their knowledge, otherwise, you won’t be able to establish a connection, if they don’t have the feeling that their words have been heard. 

Alexander: What do you believe in terms of return on education? Was it worth joining a certain university, course, or lecture? What do people value? 

Yasen: Normally the takeaways from learning are very simple and only a few. In the digital era, our impatience is growing, and if I can’t use it today – I won’t take it, so on the surface, we need to provide some “pre-cooked solutions” that people can use today. But we should also provide a deeper knowledge, the knowledge about ourselves. This is so-called meta-level knowledge. To be truly beneficial, the training should contain both pre-cooked solutions, and meta-level learning. 

Not everyone can use this meta-knowledge, but the ones who can feel gratitude and respect for the training source for a long time. What needs to be considered is that with short-term solutions, the effect of education is also short-term. 

Alexander: We are preparing a library of learning sources where one can get ready to solve challenges. Which format of learning material is the most suitable for the managers? 

Yasen: Depends on the group and the learning style of participants, but as I said already, people are getting more impatient, so watching videos is a quicker way of getting knowledge. The article, on the other hand, takes more effort, patience, and time. So, videos are currently used more, simulations are also a very fruitful thing to use. 

Alexander: Why do people prefer one type of learning material, such as a video, over the others? 

Yasen: Content takes a lot of psychological effort with the logical system in our brain, especially articles. Associative learning is involved when using dialogues, videos, and so on. Of course, there will be people interested in logical and complex content, but that’s not the majority, and we should take it into account when designing solutions. 

Alexander: In terms of learning content for managers, do you see any patterns or lack thereof?  Is there a need for something on the market?

Yasen: Each new thing is an old forgotten one. New content is about the Clan culture. Seeing the whole picture. Conversational intelligence – this concept is an extension of Emotional Intelligence and is related specifically to the ways managers are talking to their teams. Making people recognize organizational values as their own. Very useful in the modern corporate world. 

It is very much related to agility, and even conversational intelligence is very related to distance management and supporting the work from a home office. These two topics are especially useful to large organizations with a higher level of complexity. 

Alexander: Is there anything useful in terms of software to fill the existing needs? 

Yasen: Currently, the software does not use behavioral psychology effectively. People are not involved in the learning process; vice versa, current software products highlight the non-real experience, and they focus solely on delivering content. 

Software should use human psychology, recognize the reactions of the user, and reflect on confusion the person might have. Providing personal and humane reactions, such as: “Hey, Yasen, why are you taking it so slowly?” is important to stimulate emotional interaction with the user. 

Alexander: We are considering taking heuristic patterns into the system. Is that something that works psychologically for current software? Does it work with managers? 

Yasen: Well, I was working intensely with nudging theory, which is easy to understand but hard to apply. It evolved in the 70s, but only now do we get an understanding of the usage of this theory. We might use such an approach to design software architecture, but not as content for managerial training. Behavioral sciences might be used in designing the system, but providing its insights as the content of managerial training might be highly inefficient. Simply, the expectations for the effect of “nudging” will be too high, and the appetite for quick results cannot be satisfied. Behavioral tactics work in management, just they need more time to be practiced and perfected, and the managers might not have this time or patience. 

But, to answer your question – heuristic theories make a perfect addition to software gamification for learning. 

Alexander: How do we form a community using the software? When people play together, how to support their comfort level with a tool? 

Yasen: When you start an online community, you need a supportive role player to create a climate of learning. People who are somehow “undercover” players, the ones we trust, maybe our co-workers. Their role is to send some positive messages to others, this will create a comfortable atmosphere in a group.  Messages such as: “Good attempt Alex, maybe next time you can do….”, or “Great try, when I was doing it for the first time I was not even close to that score…”  If we don’t blame and judge, but provide supportive feedback instead, the learning process in the group can be very productive. 

Alexander: What is the challenge that software developers and businesses in the field of education need to face? 

Yasen: We, as consumers, have so much content, so much to take from, so we’re picky and we either give our attention or not in the very beginning. We don’t take time; we rush to make the most of available content.  

With the right implementation of behavioral psychology theories into the system design, deep learning can be combined with a quick and on-point one. And to make it enjoyable, people or players need to see some positive reactions to their attempts and efforts, at least the first couple of times, so set themselves free to try, make mistakes and succeed. 

This discussion is highly beneficial if put into practice. Currently, we, as a community, interact with different software daily, and we cannot deny the effect this behavioral pattern has on our lifestyle and well-being. 

For software companies to reach the peak of usability in terms of learning, alongside fulfilling the deep emotional needs of users, is the greatest target, yet to be reached. 

We, as a company, believe that this interview has left its mark on the way we are designing our games. Sharing it with the global community is an attempt to engage you in a discussion, hear your opinion and go towards developing unique functional software solutions together, learning from industries such as psychology, engaging professionals on human nature in designing the solutions for people, not for the industry.

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