6 lessons from Nudge Unit: using behavioural psychology to increase learning uptake

5th February 2020

Creating rich and varied learning opportunities is not enough.

Most professionals in corporate learning and development know this, because we’ve invariably had the experience of creating new courses and programmes that are coolly received and rarely revisited.

Our colleagues are busy, pressured and determined to be seen to do the right thing. Making time for training and development can be difficult. Without concerted effort on the part of colleagues, line managers and learning professionals, our colleagues can easily forget to make time for development activities.

Even with our best efforts, it’s common to find that take-up rates for courses, workshops and learning opportunities are surprisingly low. Even valuable resources and high-quality courses go unused. New programmes may attract a flurry of participation, but they soon lose momentum and your colleagues return their focus to their work.

Could behavioural insights encourage greater uptake?

The Nudge Unit, formally known as the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), was a team within the UK’s Cabinet Office that was tasked with improving government services and saving the government money by employing a blend of behavioural economics and psychology.

In practice, this often meant making small changes to government services to create big changes in public behaviour.

For example, they tried using the power of social norms to encourage people to pay their tax on time. Adding a note to tax statements stating that most people pay their tax on time made a significant impact on payment rates. Broadly speaking, people want to be like their peers, even when it means emulating their tax payment habits.

In another example, BIT used the principle of reciprocity to encourage people to join the organ donor register. They tested eight different messages, and found that the most effective variant nudged the public to think about their own potential need for a life-changing operation: “If you needed an organ transplant, would you have one?” If so, please help others.”

BIT had a number of significant successes in changing behaviour, saving money and reducing harm, simply by examining challenges and then using the theories and principles of behavioural science to suggest solutions.

Could behavioural science, and our understanding of cognitive biases, be useful in encouraging colleagues to take advantage of the learning and development programmes we provide?

There are hundreds of different cognitive biases, influencing everything from how we become friends, choose a career and make decisions.

We’ve picked out a handful of biases that could plausibly be useful in promoting corporate L&D and getting people to maintain interest.

Before we dive into these cognitive biases, let’s define our terms.

What is a cognitive bias?

Our brains use mental shortcuts, called heuristics, to help us navigate a complex world. These heuristics can sometimes lead us to make poor decisions, because we make snap judgements without giving the matter the mental attention it deserves. The negative side effects of heuristics are called cognitive biases.

The world is an intensely complex place, placing an immense burden on the human brain. Every day we have to interpret, understand and process millions of pieces of information, from the significant (the results of a blood test) to the irrelevant (a bumper sticker on the car ahead of you). Rather than have to stop and think about everything we see, our brains use shortcuts to keep us moving through our lives.

While these quick-thinking processes may sometimes seem irrational, and can cause us to miss important details and overlook problematic processes, our cognitive biases are primarily an asset that prevents paralysis in the face of overwhelming stimuli. Our mental shortcuts help us make timely decisions and focus on the big, significant and unusual choices that demand our attention. Instead of having to worry about the minutiae of the world around us, we can save our thoughts for the things that matter.

As noted above, these biases can produce negative effects, primarily when we fail to think about choices that deserve our attention. By understanding some of these biases, we may be able to overcome some of the hidden resistance preventing our colleagues from developing new knowledge and skills.


IKEA effect

Research shows that people value things more highly if they have been involved in their creation. For this effect to occur, users must be involved in the successful completion of a project.

How could the IKEA effect improve outcomes for your learning and development programmes? You could try to involve colleagues in the creation of the courses or the design of programmes. If your programmes are fully developed and deployed, you could give colleagues a schedule or some part of the course that they can define or design. Simply getting colleagues to create their own learning roadmap could create the sense of self-control and of having invested their own selves in their learning, which could make them value the opportunity more.

Halo effect

People attribute positive things to people who have obvious positive traits. If we think that Stephanie is attractive, we are more likely to think she is also intelligent, generous and humble. Conversely, we tend to attribute negative qualities to people we don’t like. When we see someone wearing a suit, we are more likely to assume they are clever and successful.

If we see an angel wearing a halo, we assume the angel is entirely good, even though we have no evidence for this, apart from the ring around their head.

The implication for corporate learning and development programmes is that we will be judged quickly and harshly, based on the most superficial of factors.

If our colleagues’ first experience of company learning is a crudely designed e-learning package, they may assume that the learning itself is of poor quality or incomplete. On the flip side, beautiful content that creates a positive first impression is more likely to be viewed as good quality, accurate, useful and complete.

We all know that first impressions matter. The halo effect suggests that our impressions go beyond the superficial; they lead us to attribute additional qualities to anything we see.

If we want our users to assume the best, it may be helpful to adorn our learning with a halo. This might take the form of a piece of hero content that sets the scene, or we might try to involve a recognised and respected individual or organisation in our learning. If celebrity or industry endorsements are unachievable, we might try to use quotes or references from well-known names, brands or books to lend us additional credibility – and the glow from their halo.

Social proof

Few people want to make decisions that are contrary to the herd (unless doing so confers significant advantages). When we make choices, we look around to see what other people are doing. This is why stores and nightclubs love having queues snaking around their buildings. It’s why ecommerce companies tell you that 23 other people are also looking at that pair of slippers. And it’s why Amazon and eBay make such a big feature of user reviews. We take comfort in the reassurances of strangers.

Whether social proof is always a useful guide to whether something is right for us or not, the fact remains that people do look for evidence of others routinely.

How can you use social proof in your learning and development programme? You could include testimonials from previous learners. Or tell people how many colleagues have completed an e-learning course. Or send monthly updates about which team or department has completed the most learning and development in that period.

The key thing is to remind colleagues that the learning you provide is valued and used by their peers.


Dunning-Kruger effect

You don’t know what you don’t know. And the less you know, the less able you are to estimate your knowledge.

People with greater knowledge of a particular domain tend to become more aware of the depth of the subject and the limits of their understanding: they know just how little they really know. Meanwhile, people who know very little can make the mistake of thinking there isn’t much more to explore. They don’t have sufficient knowledge to recognise the limitations of their learning.

The Dunning-Kruger effect may be reflected in our co-workers’ lack of interest in learning and development opportunities. New joiners may think they are learning everything they need to know from their peers and superiors. Old hands assume they’ve learned everything there is to know. Both groups ignore e-learning courses and decline invitations to workshops, seminars and conferences, believing that they have nothing to gain.

How could you use the Dunning-Kruger effect to positively influence your learners? You might try to nudge colleagues into recognising the gaps in their knowledge, perhaps by referencing terminology or recognised experts in communications about courses. Or you could ask everyone to take a 2-minutes pop quiz to test their knowledge.

The key is to encourage colleagues to recognise the limits of their knowledge and to identify new ideas, concepts, techniques or systems that would benefit their working lives.

While standard communication advice is to reduce jargon and write in a way that everyone can understand, there may be occasions when puzzling your audience (and making them question their level of expertise) can be beneficial for the reader.


Serial position effect

Also known as the primacy and recency effect, this bias relates to our tendency to give the greatest attention to the first and last thing we encounter. If we are presented with a shopping list, we will most likely remember the first and last things on the list, while forgetting many of the details in the middle.

For L&D professionals, this might mean that we put the most important features of our communications or courses in the first and final places. More generally, the research into memory and recall is a potent reminder that much of what we communicate will be forgotten – if it is ever understood at all.

Which brings us neatly onto our final point…

The curse of knowledge

The curse of knowledge is that teachers may struggle to understand the needs of the student, because they cannot fully understand the students’ level of knowledge.

As learning and development professionals, the courses we create and the opportunities we devise seem patently obvious to everyone. After all, we understand the genesis of these resources. We know why they were created, and we have a detailed understanding of the effort expended in their creation. We understand the how, why, what and where of our learning. It’s obvious who the learning is for, and what they will gain from it.

But for our colleagues, this same learning may be total mystery. In the business at large, questions remain about how to access the learning, who can access the learning, the benefits of taking part, and any limitations or exceptions.

L&D professionals will likely protest that they have answered all these questions – and many more – in countless emails, presentations, PDFs, intranet pages and e-learning portals.

But that’s often not enough.

The lesson for learning professionals is that colleagues need regular reassurance that learning is for them. Your colleagues may also need reminders of how to access learning, and when – and whether there are any processes required before starting training.


Incremental gains in your learning programmes

Encouraging your colleagues to take up learning and development opportunities is no easy feat. But we believe the ideas in this article could help to nudge your peers in the right direction, and produce incremental improvements in rates of uptake and completion.

Many of these principles suggest low-cost or free changes that you can make internally, which could help you produce a better return on investments already made in learning and development.


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