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Creating impactful learning using behavioural science

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According to a 2013 Zichermann study,1 a human-centred learning programme design based on behavioural principles could increase skills retention by 40%. Indeed, the average learner of today is often constantly engaging and learning through various social media platforms that use behavioural principles in their designs. Why do the same learners often run away from corporate learning? This is partly because the learning profession can sometimes spend too long to tell learners what they need to learn, leading to cognitive overload without directly enabling learners to do their jobs better. As a result, we are often left with learning interventions that are unimpactful and irrelevant. So how can we also embed behavioural science principles in corporate learning the same way social media platforms do, and what is behavioural science?

Behavioural science is the study of human behaviours. It explores the way human emotions interact with the environment and other social factors to influence decision making. Within behavioural science, there are various theories that can help us create impactful and engaging learning for learners, and as a result, can help to bring about a change in their behaviours. Here are three key behavioural science theories that we often employ at EY as part of our learning offering to our clients, to help make the learning more impactful and relevant.

Nudge theory

This theory is centred around the idea that we can influence decisions indirectly and unconsciously through creating a decision-supportive environment, instead of forcing people to change directly.

Keeping the principles of this theory in mind, it can be possible to create intelligent learning infrastructure and experience platforms, or design content in a way that provides learners with the information they need at the right time.

Personalisation of learning and creating bespoke learning pathways is a great example of nudge theory in practice. In a 2021 Brandon Hall Group L&D study,2 93% of the companies stated that personalised learning helps improve organisational performance and individual performance. This would require a dynamic needs analysis to understand different needs of the learners to help provide them what they want and where they want it, that way reducing their cognitive overload.

Social and deep learning theory

This is the idea that knowledge can penetrates the deepest for learners when it taps into multiple cognitive domains through our various senses, and when it allows the learners to observe the behaviours of other role models.

Principles of social and deep learning can help us create and curate learning that uses a multi-sensory approach and help to create immersive learning modules and programmes. A recent study conducted by Stanford University and Technical University of Denmark reported 76% increase in learning effectiveness with the use of VR technology that engages all five senses.3 In fact, ABI research has found that the VR training market could potentially generate $6.3bn by 2022.4 Embedding social collaboration and role models into the immersive experience could also bring additional benefits since role-modelling is often an effective learning method.


Gamification is designing learning programmes that mimic the experience of playing games, with the goal of motivating the learners to learn the same way a game motivates its players to play.

This has been one of the most well-known behavioural theories because of its potential impact in enabling learners to display desirable behaviours. A recent gamification statistic report showed 95% of workers enjoyed having game-inspired elements so much so that it raised learning retention by 90%.5

Games can be engaging because of our three fundamental psychological and intrinsic needs - needs for competence, autonomy and social relatedness. Games appeal to all three of them in various ways. For example, awarding badges to appeal to the learners’ needs for competence, avatars to appeal to their sense of autonomy, and various team-based competitions to appeal to their sense of social relatedness.

There are a number of key actions that can be considered in order to make content more human centric and empowering to audiences:

  1. Provide an interactive, accessible platform – enable your learners to interact, exchange information, monitor their progress and model appropriate behaviours
  2. Implement personalisation – consider learner journeys based on individual learning needs
  3. Ensure accessibility – learning should be clearly laid out, easy to navigate, mobile-first and easy to engage with in bitesize chunks
  4. Create immersive learning experiences – ensure your learning follow a story format and appeals to as many of the five senses as possible
  5. Utilise gamification – weave competitions, reward points, badges and leader boards into everyday learning


In summary, behavioural science can provide crucial help in making corporate learning enjoyable - helping to transform employees from passive learners to active participants, enhancing their control of what, where and how they learn. Now is the time to start approaching your learning programmes with this renewed lens to make your learning even more impactful and relevant.

Please contact us to find out more about our EY learning offerings in more detail.

  1. Zichermann, G., & Linder, J. (2013). Game-based marketing. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley. ↩︎

  2. Brandon Hall Group. (2021). State of Learning Practices Study 2021. ↩︎

  3. Bonde, M., Makransky, G., Wandall, J., Larsen, M., Morsing, M., Jarmer, H., & Sommer, M. (2014). Improving biotech education through gamified laboratory simulations. Nature Biotechnology, 32(7), 694-697. ↩︎

  4. ABI Research. (2017) . Enterprise Virtual Reality Training Services to Generate US$6.3 billion in 2022. https://www.abiresearch.com/press/enterprise-virtual-reality-training-services-gener/ ↩︎

  5. Review 42. (2022). Top Gamification Statistics of 2022: Next Level Gaming. https://review42.com/resources/gamification-statistics/#:~:text=Gamification%20participants%20score%2014%25%20higher,registered%20business%20users%20by%20600%25↩︎