June 2020
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Tap Into Emotion to Meet Learning Objectives

Monday, June 1, 2020

Deliver an engaging, effective learning experience by leveraging the power of emotion.

The late great author and lecturer Dale Carnegie famously said, "When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion." Perhaps nowhere is that more applicable than when it comes to learning. Individuals are more likely to remember stories and events when they connect with them on an emotional level. Everyone can probably recall specific events, personal or otherwise, that have moved them in some way. Using the power of emotion in learning can have a strong impact on learning effectiveness, retention, and outcomes.


What it is

Learning can be an emotional process: People naturally remember events and experiences that make them feel something emotionally. Emotion greatly affects learning, memory, and performance; savvy learning experience designers tap into that. By designing experiences that invoke emotions—either positive or negative—there is a greater chance that learners will take notice of and encode, store, and retrieve the information when needed. Essentially, it's about making things stick.

How it works

There are many books about motivation, but how do instructional designers develop a personalized, scalable learning experience for people who have different drivers and habits? Individuals will have their own reasons for acting, so when creating learning experiences, seek out common ground. That is where emotion comes in.

For most people, a poignant story or event will elicit a similar emotional response, demonstrating why emotion is such an effective lever for learning. Rather than trying to motivate people to do something, think about how you can make them feel something.

While there are many behavioral science concepts with practical applications in corporate L&D, there are a few particularly powerful techniques every learning experience creator should be familiar with and integrate into their learning strategy. By understanding the role of emotion in learning—and helping your learners form an emotional connection with the learning content you're presenting—you can more effectively engage learners and improve the quality of their learning experiences.


Create a learning experience that taps into learners' emotions to maximize learning impact and retention.

Consider the emotions you want to evoke. Think carefully about the emotions you want to elicit among your learners. Drawing on core emotions—such as fear, anger, joy, surprise, sadness, and even disgust—can make learning stickier and more engaging. And while you don't want to use negative emotions excessively, and you certainly don't want to create a culture of fear when it comes to learning, even negative emotions can have a place and a purpose in your design.

When you're buying or creating learning content, think critically about whether the learning experience will engage your audience and elicit an emotional reaction. An emotional reaction is more likely to trigger a lasting memory.

Motivate learners using loss aversion. Losing is an emotional experience. The world of behavioral science, specifically psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, reveals that people feel a loss about twice as strongly as they feel a gain.

Game designers love to exploit that irrational human trait to engage players and get them to feel things as they play along. Some people may even argue that a game isn't a game at all unless there's a chance a player loses. Leveraging gamification techniques, such as awarding points that employees must actively work to keep, can be a particularly powerful learning strategy.

Make use of social stories. Humans are social creatures. As such, people are constantly asking themselves questions like "How will this make me look?" and "What are other people doing?"

On some level, everyone cares about what others think. And from the explosive rise of reality television and social media, it's easy to see that people also find others' stories and experiences downright fascinating. By using real-world stories and situations to harness and engage this natural social drive that everyone possesses, you can create an emotional learning experience to make learning more memorable and effective.


Link emotion to the topic and the learner's actions. While experiencing an emotion helps people remember relevant information, it's not enough to invoke a disconnected emotion in learners. To be effective, the emotion you want to trigger must have a clear link to the topic. Essentially, it's the "so what" factor.

Learners should be asking themselves questions like "Why should I care about this topic?" and "What will I do differently as a result of the experience?" So, don't just make learners feel sad or afraid; rather, help them make the right connections and choices.

Triggering an emotion can create a lasting and powerful effect when it comes to encoding long-term memories. If learners identify with the character in a scenario, for example, they are more likely to have an emotional response if that character suffers consequences from their poor choices.


Learners are more likely to remember something if it's tied to an emotion. That's why drawing on design approaches such as dramatic storytelling, gamification, and interactive video can be incredibly effective when it comes to creating memorable learning experiences. Even music plays a key part in provoking emotions that will have lasting impact. By harnessing the power of emotion, instructional designers can create the best learning experience for learners, helping them upskill and reskill quickly.

Checklist:Applying Behavioral Science to Improve Learning

  • Make learning memorable by using content that creates an emotional experience.
  • Use gamification techniques that tap into people's natural tendencies to avoid losses.
  • Use real stories from real people to harness individuals' natural social drive.
  • Help learners feel something by showing real consequences in response to their actions.


Tversky, A., and D. Kahneman. 1992. "Advances in Prospect Theory: Cumulative Representation of Uncertainty." Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 5 (4): 297-323.

Immordino-Yang, M.H. 2016. Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience (The Norton Series on the Social Neuroscience of Education), 1st edition. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co.

Saba. n.d. "Using Neuroscience Principles to Power Learning - A Guide to Success." www.saba.com/resources/ebooks-and -guides/using-neuroscience-principles-to-power-learning-a-guide-to-success.

About the Author

Carole Bower is head of learning at Saba and is responsible for shaping and transforming its digital learning proposition and learning design capabilities, as well as the effectiveness of the digital solutions delivered.

Bower has worked in the digital learning/e-learning industry for more than 20 years and has a broad experience in directing and designing digital learning, including learning consultancy, the design and management of learning solutions at CBT Solutions as an owner/partner, and at Knowledgepool. She was also elected as a board director of the e-Learning Network and carried out this role from 2009–2012.

1 Comment
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Great advice. I'm going to work towards ensuring we include more of these items in the future.
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