Male hand pushing dominoes on wooden table
ATD Blog

Want to Change Behavior? Give Learners a Nudge

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

As often happens in the learning profession, what most of us know as nudge learning has been adapted from its original purpose in a different domain to address L&D needs. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness introduced the term in 2008 as a framework for achieving social change at scale by making tiny, incremental changes in the behavior of a large population. The theory suggests that offering a series of choices, each leading a bit closer to the desired behavior, is more effective than trying to change complex human behavior all at once. Two fundamental assumptions of nudge theory are:

  • Human behavior isn’t based solely on logic, so we can’t change it by simply presenting facts.
  • People can’t be forced to change behavior. We can only offer them choices and make the adoption of desired behaviors more attractive than established alternatives.

One example of a nudge towards healthier eating, for example, is providing alternatives to sugary snacks, such as fresh fruit and energy bars, in vending machines.

Today we see nudge theory employed in self-improvement mobile apps that help us lose weight, exercise more, plan for our retirement, improve our credit scores, or learn a new language. Without realizing it, the self-improvement industry has changed our behavior, influencing us to seek a new app every time we want to make a change in our lives. The popularity of these apps is, by itself, an example of nudge learning in action.

The Brain Science Behind Nudges

Nudge learning works because it leverages multiple things we know about how the brain learns:

  • Learner ChoiceMalcolm Knowles first defined the adult learner’s need for self-direction. Nudge learning done right never tells the learner, “this is how you have to do things,” but rather, “here’s a suggestion for you to try.”
  • The Spacing EffectEbbinhaus first identified the need for spaced repetition to create enduring changes in behavior. Our brains are programmed to reinforce new learning pathways that are visited repeatedly, while forgetting those that occur infrequently. A series of short messages to a learner’s mobile phone or tablet can deliver the repeated content that is needed to convert short-term learning into longer-term retention.
  • Minimal Cognitive LoadWe all know that a data dump is an ineffective means of delivering training, but sometimes it simply can’t be helped. If you pair a content-heavy course with a nudge learning initiative, you can deliver reminders in tiny, repetitive chunks in the flow of work to improve learner adoption and retention.
  • Positive ReinforcementThe reward circuit in our brains is triggered whenever we receive a reward for doing something. Repeated rewards build behavior patterns and make it more likely that we’ll do that same thing again. This reward can be a fun little animation that plays when a learner clicks on a suggested link, a chatbot that breaks into a celebratory dance when a task is complete, or a human coach recognizing even the tiniest bit of progress towards the goal.

Adding Nudge Learning to Your Toolbox

You don’t need an app to deliver nudge learning. Tiny messages designed to influence behavior can be deployed by other means as well, such as:

  • Suggestions from a friendly chatbot—A training team at the United Nations is using my chatbot to remind learners to keep up with their development plans every time they log in.
  • Email reminders or calendar pop-ups—Turn those massive to-do lists for new hires into tiny steps and build automated email and calendar reminders to keep learners on track.
  • Messages presented on posters, website banners, or visual opportunities in the physical or digital workplace—Take a catchy line or slogan from a training program and plaster it everywhere you can. You may think people aren’t paying attention, but their brains are registering these messages unconsciously, and their impact builds over time with repeated exposures.
  • Product placement, where key influencers are shown using the tool or practice embedded in communication on other topics—For example, when I wanted to encourage a sales team to adopt a new tool for gathering competitive information, we planted references to the insights available from that tool in the regular updates and speeches from top sales leaders, such as “I was in ThoughtSpot this morning and noticed this interesting trend.”
  • Suggestions embedded in other learning experiences, such as traditional e-learning, virtual, or classroom delivery—For a client who was struggling to move the needle on inclusive behaviors, we evaluated their entire training portfolio and made subtle changes to include more inclusive examples and images in everything from systems training to leadership—without explicitly labeling the desired behavior we were modeling.

Your nudge learning initiative will be more effective if you deliver the content in multiple ways over an extended period. Here are seven tips I’ve culled from building nudge learning programs for my clients:

1. Nudge learning works best in combination with other approaches. Don’t expect the nudge program to deliver the results you want all by itself. While self-improvement apps are effective for some, the dropout rate is high, which is fine if your business model is simply to sell app subscriptions and have enough users to give you positive reviews and social credibility. But if you need most of your target group to actually adopt and sustain new behaviors, nudge learning is much more effective as an additional part of traditional learning, rather than a stand-alone solution.

2. Add social learning and gamification to amplify results. Because nudges are often delivered via technology, they are easily paired with dashboards or other representations of individual and team progress to generate a sense of accomplish and inspire healthy competition. Remember that this competition can be against oneself as well. For example, a chatbot can tell a learner how far along the learning path they are today and suggest a next step to help the learner advance.

3. Keep nudges brief, positive, and focused on a single suggested action. A nudge is not an opportunity to provide a summary of an entire course. It is a tiny whisper suggesting a single step that, if chosen, takes the learning forward. Longer messages will simply be ignored and may even have a negative effect on behavior.


4. Link nudges to corporate or individual goals. In the United Nations example, the chatbot reminds learners of their individual professional goals whenever they log on to the system, inviting them to choose a new course or complete an existing one that supports those goals.

5. Build impact over time through repetition. Don’t expect a few nudges to get the job done. Behavior change is hard and takes place slowly, like an iceberg inching forward. Establish expectations that your nudge program is not a quick fix—but it can be permanent one, when used well.

6. Practice incremental improvement by studying the data. If your nudges are delivered in a digital environment, you’ll gain access to a wealth of data on learner behavior. Discover which nudges inspire the greatest response in terms of learner behavior and continue to make incremental improvements based on those insights.

7. Ask learners what they think. A good consultant always asks their clients if their services delivered the desired outcomes, and well-designed nudge programs can do the same thing. Increase learner engagement by adding a simple question, such as “Did this suggestion help?” Follow up a positive response with “When would you like me to remind you again?”

If you’ve been tasked with changing intractable human behavior, a gentle nudge just might get things moving in the right direction.

About the Author

Margie Meacham, “The Brain Lady,” is a scholar-practitioner in the field of education and learning and president of LearningToGo. She specializes in practical applications for neuroscience to enhance learning and performance. Meacham’s clients include businesses, schools, and universities. She writes a popular blog for the Association of Talent Development and has published two books, Brain Matters: How to Help Anyone Learn Anything Using Neuroscience and The Genius Button: Using Neuroscience to Bring Out Your Inner Genius.

She first became interested in the brain when she went with undiagnosed dyslexia as a child. Although she struggled in the early grades, she eventually taught herself how to overcome the challenge of a slight learning disability and became her high school valedictorian, graduated magna cum laude from Centenary University, and earned her master’s degree in education from Capella University with a 4.0.

Meacham started her professional career in high-tech sales, and when she was promoted to director of training, she discovered her passion for teaching and helping people learn. She became one of the first corporate trainers to use video conferencing and e-learning and started her own consulting company from there. Today she consults for many organizations, helping them design learning experiences that will form new neural connections and marry neuroscience theory with practice.

“I believe we are on the verge of so many wonderful discoveries about how we learn. Understanding what happens in the brain is making us better leaders, teachers, parents, and employees. We have no limits to what we can accomplish with our wonderful brains— the best survival machines ever built.”
—Margie Meacham

Sign In to Post a Comment
Wow, what an interesting article on the evolution of nudge learning in the learning and development world! I love how it has been adapted from its original purpose and now incorporated in self-improvement apps to drive positive behavior changes. Have you come across any specific examples of nudge learning initiatives that have been particularly successful in achieving desired behavior changes?
Thanks, Vitaliy! I find that digging into the history of best practices often gives us added insight into how they can apply to L&D. As for your question about examples, I've consulted on several projects with great results in nudge learning. If you'd like more information, please contact me directly via LinkedIn so we can take the conversation offline, Thanks again!
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.