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Design For How People Learn: Design for Motivation

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In this chapter, we learn that we don’t always learn the right thing when we learn from experience, and that the elephant is a creature of habit.
This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

There are two main types of motivation that we concern ourselves with as learning designers:

  • Motivation to learn
  • Motivation to do

We’ve already spent a lot of time looking at motivation to learn (remember the elephant?), so this chapter is going to concern itself with motivation to do.

Motivation To Do

Numerous studies have come out in the last few years that say texting while driving is a very very dangerous thing to do.


That texting while driving is dangerous probably isn’t a surprise to the vast majority of the population. So why do people continue to do it?

I don’t know exactly, but I suspect it’s because people have one, or a mix, of the following thoughts and responses:

  • “I know it’s a bad idea, and I never do it (except when I do, and then I feel guilty).”
  • “I know it’s a bad idea, but I only do it once in a while, and I’m very careful.”
  • “I know it’s a bad idea for other people, but I can do it because I’m really good at it.”
  • “Huh? What’s the big deal?”

Most of the responses above indicate that this is not a knowledge problem, and that an intervention that focuses on knowledge isn’t going to change anything, because it’s not the “know” part but rather the “do” part of the sentence that’s the problem.

So why do people do things they know are a bad idea? It’s not because they aren’t smart people.

A big part of this goes back to our elephant and rider. Frequently, the rider knows, but the elephant still does.

We Learn From Experience

Part of the reason for “I know, but...” is that people learn from experience, which is a great thing (we wouldn’t want to live in a world where people didn’t), but it can cause some problems. The elephant in particular can be far more influenced by experience than by abstract knowledge.

Here’s an example. Let’s say that 1 in 10 instances of texting while driving results in an accident (this isn’t a real statistic; I don’t think that exact data is known—this is just for purposes of argument). Let’s take a look at the experience of two different drivers:

Texting while driving

Driver 1

Driver 2

1st Time



2nd Time

Has nasty fender bender


3rd Time

Doesn't text


4th Time

Doesn't text


5th Time

Doesn't text


6th Time

Doesn't text


7th Time

Doesn't text


8th Time

Doesn't text


9th Time

Doesn't text


10th Time

Doesn't text

Has an accident

Both drivers are learning from experience, but the lesson Driver 2 is learning from experience is that texting while driving is fine—see, look at all the experience that confirms that! Until it isn’t fine, of course.

This is why people have a really hard time with activities where the action is now but the consequence is later. The elephant is a creature of immediacy. Take a look at these classic “I know, but...” activities.

Classic “I know, but...” activities


Immediate Consequence

Delayed Consequence


Nice nicotine hit

Lung cancer

Saving for retirement

Less money

More money



Nice abs!



I'm not getting on that scale...

In these activities, the elephant is being asked to sacrifice in the present for some future gain, but the elephant is only really persuaded by what’s happening now, and by the experience of the immediate consequences. The rider knows that there’s an association with the future consequence, but whatever that future consequence is, it’s too abstract to influence the elephant.

Remember, Change Is Hard

Now, you might not be trying to fix behaviors as difficult as smoking, but anything that involves extra effort is going to be a lot easier if the elephant is on board with the program.

In particular, changing an existing pattern of behavior can require effort for the elephant. The elephant is a creature of habit, which means that if the elephant is used to going left, it’s going to require a fair bit of conscious effort to get it to go right instead.

Before we look at ways to influence learner behavior, and while this word “change” keeps popping up, let’s be clear on one thing: none of this is about controlling the learner. It’s not about tricking your learners into compliance. Instead, it’s about designing environments that make it easier for those learners to succeed.

The experience they have when they are learning about something can make a difference in the decisions they make later.

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