Learning lessons from behavioural economics

Tess Robinson points to behavioural economics for a few learning lessons.

Traditional economics, on which many business systems and processes are premised, would have you believe that humans are rational creatures, that we evaluate our situation in a logical way, making decisions based on cost-benefit analyses – but are we really like that?

Behavioural economics turns this on its head and suggests that actually, we are myopic beings whose choices are loaded with emotions and cognitive bias. We make mistakes too – lots of them. 

Behavioural economics amalgamates ideas from psychology, neuroscience, sociology and microeconomics to explain the way that decisions are made. Although primarily focused on economic decisions, this way of thinking has some serious implications for learning design.

The context in which people make decisions also has a bearing on the choices they make, as does the influence of people around them.

Behavioural economics, as the name suggests, is all about behaviour and behaviour change – the Holy Grail for learning designers. Recognising that humans won’t necessarily do what you want them to, or even do what they say they’re going to do, is the first step to understanding behaviour and ultimately being able to change and improve it. 

The context in which people make decisions also has a bearing on the choices they make, as does the influence of people around them. 

So what lessons can we take from behavioural economics when designing digital learning?

  1. Context is important – learners make decisions comparatively and relatively, so it is vital that the learning is put into context. This might be via a business simulation or a realistic scenario. This type of environment helps learners to try out their decision-making and evaluate the consequences in a safe setting. Contextualising processes or procedures within the learning can also help learners to see their relevance and put them into practice in their day-to-day jobs.
  2. Human decision making is not perfect and people often need help in making decisions to overcome bias. The learning material should be presented in such a way that learners are gently nudged into making the right choices without making it so easy that it’s not a challenge and they get bored or feel patronised. Click-to-reveal hints, limiting choices and directional feedback are all perfectly acceptable ways to help the learner come to the right conclusion.
  3. Don’t give learners too many options. If you give people five options they will invariably go for the middle one. We’re programmed to avoid extremes. Too much choice can be overwhelming and a huge turn-off, as well as making your learning unwieldy.
  4. People tend to prefer instant gratification over future benefits. Designing immediate feedback, badges, points and other gamification tools into your learning interventions can provide this. Don’t forget, however, that it’s important to take the culture of the organisation and the appetite of your learners into account when deciding whether this approach is appropriate.
  5. We use mental short-cuts (heuristics) to solve problems. These come from things like hindsight, recency, availability and representativeness. Under most circumstances, these simple rules serve us well but they can lead to deviations, known as ‘cognitive biases’. This helps explain why people don’t always make rational decisions. Availability – the ease with which an idea can be brought to mind – is an interesting bias to consider for learning. As an early 70s study by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman found that uncommon dramatic events are more easily brought to mind than more common, mundane ones. We are more likely to remember vivid examples, so learning with impact that tells a good story is more likely to stick.
  6. People generally like to conform and cluster together. Including some form of social learning will play well to these traits and encourage participation. Again, the level to which you integrate this type of learning very much depends on organisational culture – both the stated one and the informal one. Social can be light-touch and relatively private or a full-on public network. This goes back to knowing and understanding your audience and what will work for them.
  7. Everyone makes mistakes and imperfect choices. Embrace this in your learning design and give people the chance to get it wrong and repeat activities until they get the right answers. As the basketball player and businessman Michael Jordan said, ‘I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed’. Janet Metcalfe, Professor of Psychology at Columbia University published a scientific review in 2017 called ‘Learning from Errors’. She showed that making errors followed by corrective feedback is beneficial to learning. Although it’s not entirely clear why this is the case, it’s believed that the process of reflecting conscious attention on the mistake (and not repeating it) cements the correct answer and improves performance.

Undoubtedly, taking the principles of behavioural economics into account when designing learning requires some deep thought, however it will help you to create learning experiences that change human behaviour. Remember that people are not always rational; we are complex, sometimes driven largely by our emotions – it’s what makes us human.  


About the author

Tess Robinson is a director of LAS. LAS helps people and organisations grow and evolve through digital learning experiences. 



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