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How Behavioral Science Can Improve Your Training

This was originally posted on eLearning Industry on September 18, 2019

When you hear the term “behavioral science,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? If you took any psychology classes in high school, you might think of a mouse in a cage, pressing a lever to receive a tasty piece of cheese. This scenario is associated with operant conditioning, a foundational concept developed by the behaviorist B.F. Skinner back in the 30s. His experimental apparatus distilled the science of motivation right down to its basic elements. Skinner explored the ways reinforcement and punishment can be used to create change in the behavior of animals and humans alike.

Behavioral Science In Corporate Training

When we’re designing corporate training, we don’t spend much time with laboratory mice—but we do spend plenty of time focusing on behavioral change.

Operant conditioning is good at training people to change their behavior in broad strokes. If an unmotivated worker receives a bonus for their productivity, then they’re likely to work harder to receive additional bonuses. This is called positive reinforcement. If a company begins requiring employees to stay late when they don’t complete their work by 5:00, they will probably change their time management to get their work done on time. This is called positive punishment.

Employee training programs are far more sophisticated than this, of course. But these basic ideas have spawned offshoot theories with direct application to compliance training, employee onboarding, leadership development—all kinds of training, online and off.

Nudging Learners Τo Change

One offshoot of Skinner’s work is the nudge theory. This concept holds that small suggestions, or slight modifications to how information is presented, can influence the decision making of groups and individuals. Moreover, it can be just as effective, if not more, than direct instruction. Some ways to “nudge” your employees into changing their behavior through corporate training include:

1. Make Learning Instantly Accessible When It’s Needed

If a learning system is just slightly hard to use, employees will be unlikely to use it every time they need to. If it’s hard to search for relevant courses, people will give up in frustration. You can nudge learners toward the training they need by organizing it in a user-friendly learning portal. This change can have a huge effect on productivity.

2. Use Gamification To Make Training More Engaging

Requiring employees to take dull training is like punishment. They will avoid it as long as possible and then try to get through it as quickly and painlessly as possible. If training is actually fun, then this friction will disappear and learners will make the most of what they’re learning. Think of how you seek out information in your free time—do you steer toward dense documents that increase your cognitive load, or toward interesting content that draws you in?

3. Set Desired Options As Default

Several years ago, the Spanish government wanted to increase public compliance with organ donation. Rather than asking people to opt-in and join the system (which takes some effort) the government made organ donation the default, with the option to leave. This change had no effect on the available options, but a large effect on the level of compliance—it went way up. In a corporate training environment, the parallel is to enroll employees in all training they might need by default, and require them to cancel if they don’t actually need it.

Learning From Observation

Another behavioral science concept with a strong connection to corporate training is social cognitive theory. This describes one of the most fundamental ways people learn: by watching others. It’s how babies and children learn to do just about everything, and it’s also invaluable for guiding adults through complex and unfamiliar situations.

You can apply this idea to training in many ways:

  • Include scenarios and case studies.
    Illustrate how a task is supposed to be done. It’s not easy to memorize a series of process steps, especially when it’s long and detailed. But, if you attach those steps to the actions of a role model, the learner perceives them as parts of a story and will retain them more easily.
  • Enable social learning functionality.
    When learners can exchange focused information with their peers, they can model appropriate behavior for each other. This will help fill in any learning gaps that may have come from holes in the material. They can also illustrate what not to do (sometimes on purpose, sometimes not), enriching the training beyond its original design.


The field of behavioral science is fascinating and has much more to offer than these few examples. Revisiting the foundational work of pioneering scientists and training experts is a great way to stimulate your creative side and bring your training to the next level.