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Julie Dirkson on the Science of Behaviour Change

ATD2015 session M221 is with Julie Dirksen, who is interested in the funny side of human behaviour. Why do humans do what they do? And why don’t they do what they should do? We teach people things and test them to prove that they know it. We run skills assessment sessions, training sessions and do all sorts of things to be sure that people are able do what they need to do, but they still don’t. Think compliance, think about new processes, think about systems you introduce.. How come all that learning doesn’t create sustainable behavioural change? (Or just ANY change). Let’s find out…



We are all two people

The first problem Dirksen sees is that we are all two people: We have a “rider” (the one who knows where he wants to go) and an “elephant” (the emotional beast that needs to start walking). If you want the elephant to advance, you send him a message. But the elephant doesn’t always do what the rider asks.
An example: You are told that exercise is good for you. The rider says “Awesome! Let’s plan some fitness activities and start doing it. I am bound to see some results in a few weeks.” But the elephant says “That sounds awful. “The Voice” is on the television and I’m eating my burger.”

Who is going to win?

What is going on

Dirksen explains that the rider (rational) is the one who thinks of the future and who judges what is good and bad in the long-term. But the elephant (emotional) only cares about now. So I can easily have conflict.

The elephant is asking how easy the reward is compared to the effort required and how big the reward is perceived to be. If he sees a small win now and it’s easy to achieve, he will prefer that to a small win much later. If the effort is perceived as high, then the reward may not seem worth it. Unless the reward is high enough. Or I’m going to get some output quickly.

How can I do this?

What we need to do is show the elephant a better balance in terms of size, tangibility and immediacy of the reward. If you know the tax declaration is required tomorrow, you can probably convince the elephant that sleep is not so interesting tonight after all.

OK, tell me how!

Here are Dirksen’s tips for bringing some of that balance to get some real behavioural change.


Change the size of the reward. Maybe.

Even if you can’t change her real reward, you can maybe add in some points or badges or cash or prizes. Dirksen suggest this might work to get the fire started a little, but if you are using too much of this type of extrinsic reward style, what you will really do is reinforce the behaviour of “Doing it for the other reward” rather than doing it because it’s good, the right thing to do. This might work for a little while, but Dirksen suggests that eventually those rewards will not seems as appealing. There are only so many sweets you can offer before the kids are “full” and won’t tidy their rooms for sweets anymore.

Make the reward more tangible

Dirksen shared an example of research where people were shown the tangible impact of using too much paper: During a speech about reducing paper use, one group of people is shown a video of trees being cut down. Another group is not. After the course, as participants are leaving the room, the facilitator knocks over a glass of water and stands back to see what happens when people are offered paper towels to clean up the water. Results? Those who had seen the video used on average 25% less paper towels.

In the training world, if we want to make things more tangible, we can use roleplays, simulations my, trials, observations, tinkering etc..

But Dirksen says it is absolutely key to make the elephant see the tangibliity, not the rider. To do this, you have to create some feeling, not more knowledge for the rider. Examples:

  • Don’t tell smokers it is bad, make them smoke so much they feel sick. Then repeat, until the elephant feels sick!
  • Find ways to visibly show progress to learners. As they get better, reinforce success by showing them “the progress bar” going up


Make it easier

No-one wants to put too much effort into something. So we need to make it easierf or the elephant to move forward.

One example is the use of prepared scripting. Get your learners to prepare in advance what they will do when the time comes. That way they won’t have to think too much. “If I get into situation X, I will do Y.” (This can help with the 20-second rule we saw from Dick Ruhe yesterday.)

Another way to make it easier is to help the elephant understand what others do. The elephant wants to blend in. If it has to think for itself about what is right, it will give up and take the easy habitual option. But if it gets a clear sign about what is the socially accepted norm, it will just naturally want to confirm. So: Share stories!

That’s all folks!

Key learning design steps to get right, unless you don’t want any change

Day 2 of ASTD2013 seems to be taking a theme and it is this: What we are doing in the learning doesn’t work!

In session M200, speaker Francis Wade is helping us to understand why it is so difficult to create real change with learning programmes and to see what we can do about it. As an example, he is using a time management training case. Francis says that the dream of instructional designers and trainers is this: “If we figure out the behaviour and tell it to the learners, they will listen and they will do it.” But they don’t.

They don’t listen because they are über-connected and under-attentive. They don’t have the time to learn and they are not motivate for new behaviours.

And they don’t do it for several reasons:

What you wanted them to do was not clear enough

In my own definition, I say learning is the acquisition and implementation of knowledge, skills and attitude. Francoise Wade is interested in the “implementation” part of that definition that will help us to do it better, forcing us to work better with our learning design. According to Francis: “They haven’t learned anything unless you can observable, measure and coach new (correct) behaviour.” This means that before you design your learning, you need to be 100% clear on what behaviour you expect afterwards, to what standards and in which contexts. This will allow you to do a good level 3 evaluation afterwards.

It wasn’t relevant to their own reality

Most people don’t receive any formal learning on topics like time management until after the age of 20 years old. When they come to training, they come with a whole lot of baggage. Ignore that at your peril. Training that consists of shoving knowledge at participants and expecting it to be relevant will not work. You need to use the participants’ own experience as an integral part of the learning process so that they see how to integrate learning into their reality.

You gave them what they asked for

Managers have a tendency to ask for tips and some new knowledge in an attempt to solve business problems. Learning participants who complete some form of intake questionnaire will also tell you what they know or don’t know, do well and do badly, need and don’t need. But both the managers and employees are biased. And they are not learning experts. And they are impatient and unrealistic and demanding.

Before you do anything, first see what they are actually doing right now and assess how this impacts the bottom line of business performance results in terms of 5 key business drivers. Now you have a solid benchmark of what is needed, instead of a Christmas list.

You ignored them when they were most motivated to change behaviour

It is not uncommon for trainers working on things like time management to run into participants a few weeks or months later and hear that “It was good and fun, but I haven’t managed to do anything with it yet.” All the good intentions that may have been built up during training are left aside when we step out of the room.

Francis Wade says that it is important to have a post-training support system in place for participants, but that giving a set of tools to training participants for this doesn’t work. It would be better to encourage them to themselves create their own post-training support system. This will help them to tie their own needs and learning to their own context and resources and will be more motivating.

As a side-note, read my ASTD post “before all that self and social learning, one last little training for everyone.”

At the beginning of Francis’ session I thought I may have made a mistake with my choice, as it started to sound like I was hearing things I already knew about learning program design. And I did. And I still do.

But am I doing them? Are you? And if not, why not?

Thanks for reading. My trip to ASTD2013 is sponsored by Kluwer Training in Belgium. Be sure to check out their blog page www.learninglive.be for posts from my Kluwer colleagues at the conference and many other lent inning resources.