Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Role of Emotion in Learning

When was the last time you cried, laughed, got angry, got happy or just plain felt anything while taking training or afterwards?

Probably not too often, if ever!

And yet, what is retained by our brains more than anything else?


Memories trigger emotions and vice-versa.

Emotions create a strong impact in our cortex, where our memories are stored. Things that are stored in the cortex therefore are retained. If you can create training that is memorable, you need one or more key elements in order to ensure retention afterwards:

  • IMPACT - 


Impact is when you have a strong emotional response. Someone laughs out loud, cries, gets angry or any other combination of emotions. When something is strong enough to be noticed and create a reaction that is emotional, it WILL be remembered. In training, retention is the single most important thing we can strive for (of course, retention without comprehension is somewhat useless, but it is a beginning)...

Remember, the key to impact is creating any kind of emotional response, preferably the one desired.


If something affects us directly, then it is relevant to our experience and needs. If the training being given is very relevant to the employee's job, there is more of a chance the concepts taught may be retained.

Relevance, while important, usually does not have the power of retention that IMPACT has. Combine IMPACT and RELEVANCE and you have doubled the retention potential.


Empathy is the ability to feel for someone else and relate to that feeling.  This is a harder property to track and judge in training. It is highly dependent on the employee's emotional maturity and ability to feel for someone else (somehting  that is definitely generational as well).

If one can feel for a character in the training, or a situation, then that feeling combines impact, possibly relevance and almost a guarantee of retention.

How to make your training more emotional

There are many ways to make training have more impact, be relevant and even spark some empathy. Unfortunately, much of the training being created is usually nothing more than a regurgitation of some process manual, compliance rule, HR directive, etc. In other words, most eLearning is this side of mind-numbing, completely non-memorable and of no personal relevance to the employee.

How do we change this pattern of boring, meaningless, training? Here are some ideas:


Write content that includes some kind of emotional response. Humor is a great way to retain training. People remember funny scenarios, funny characters or funny sayings. The humor has to have some "relevance" to the training and should be something the employee can "relate" to in order to guarantee a higher level of retention.


We recently created a Safety video for Southern CA Edison's OSHA training in which we were teaching the importance of time management and safety on the job. The employee, a meter repair person, was rushing through her day. She was preoccupied and not paying attention to the safety rules. After several botched installs she makes the ultimate mistake and died.

We created a scene where all we used were some sound effects and a shot of her lying dead on the floor. The video slowly rotated around her dead body and the next scene we see her work mates at the office emptying out her desk and crying.

To people like these, where one mistake could mean the loss of a life, the emotional impact of the training really hit home. When it was shown, managers and workers were literally crying at the end. Not only did it have the emotional impact, it also was very relevant to their jobs and it tugged at the empathy they all felt. 

If you can find something that sparks emotion of some kind, you will create a memorable experience that the learner will not easily forget. If the impact is also relevant then chances are the behavioral outcomes of the training will have been achieved as well. All of that means greater productivity.

Summary and suggestions

As instructional designers, or trainers, it is very critical to employ the power of emotions in our training in order to achieve optimal learning results. All too often there is no impact, relevance or empathy with the training and, as a result, little or no improvement in retention or productivity. In other words, the training is this side of useless.

Keep these three simple words in mind when writing:


I would highly recommend that instructional designers and trainers take some lessons or read some books on screenwriting. Learn how to set scenes up, scenarios that evoke something out of the learner. The more vivid and life-like our writing, the more results we will see from the learners.

Also, do some research on NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) techniques as well as read up on how cognitive functions in the brain work. 

All of this will help make your training much more viable, useful and productive.


  1. In movie terms you've created "Lean Forward" moments, times when we are literally on the edge of the chair, or laughing off the chair. I don't think I want to see the safety movie. :)

  2. LOL, the Safety video had a definite impact and that was the goal.

    We did others that also used humor. I'll post some of them on Twitter.