The Foundations of Learning: Why People Learn

This blog is 1 of 3 in a series we’re calling “The Foundations of Learning”. We will dive into the why, how, and when people learn, navigating a small yet powerful scope within the psychology of adult learning. Our goal is to inspire and tap into the underlying aspects that every human encounters when learning, so we as trainers can do our job more meaningfully. Enjoy!

why people learnThe human brain is a magnificent, and sometimes mysterious landscape, but when it comes to learning there is a lot of research to help us understand the “whys” and “hows” of it all. As a trainer, knowing the stories behind these factors is extremely helpful.

Let’s rewind to when we were kids, learning the simple things about life. As children, we are eager to learn and we have highly emotional motivators, most importantly human connection. This connection brings us a deep sense of being and teaches us what is safe and what is not. Emotions play a huge role in who we trust and what we learn from other individuals.

Did you know that our emotions dictate how and where we focus, the efficiency of our cognitive functions, and the overall success or failure of decision-making skills?

Yep, it’s true. So, creating a positive emotional connection to information or learning immediately increases the odds of knowledge transfer. Just think, when we are kids our survival depends on having a strong connection with our primary caretakers; therefore, when these individuals offered us information and new experiences, we were genuinely interested. Kids are also naturally curious – again, a great survival tactic. Have you ever been around a 2-, 3-, or 4-year-old that continuously asks you “why,” no matter how you respond? This is because children are trying to figure out the world as their brain undergoes exponential growth. They are naturally wired to learn constantly. They do this by asking the “why” behind everything, putting the sum of all the parts together to make better sense of their world. The brain creates all sorts of emotional connections in these moments, guiding the natural and super-charged learning and development phase of childhood and adolescence.

So, what happens as we get older?

Well, we start to figure out the basics of survival, the pros and cons of our family relations, our local environment, schools, friendships, and work. Ultimately, most of us spend a good amount of time in a work setting, and our past experiences influence our decisions and our core beliefs. Thanks to these factors, and others, such as pure need, research has shown that adults are much harder to motivate when it comes to learning. There must be a strong need, use case or benefit for an adult to choose to learn. So, why do we finally choose to learn something new?

In most cases the new knowledge holds some sort of relevance. Natural curiosity is not as present as we grow older. We need to have a relevant connection to why we should spend time learning something new for our brain to say: “Ok, I’m in!” Whether it’s getting someone through a new task at a more efficient pace, getting a raise, or being more successful at a passion project – all these reasons are relevant to life. There is a clear reward and a clear goal to achieve, which is motivating to the adult brain and if trainers provide relevant learning experiences, the learner begins to trust their guidance and their training program. Note: creating negative emotional experience by forcing learners through non-relevant training (aka wasting their time) will immediately lose trust. This can hurt your program, so choose wisely and learn to communicate to leadership the importance of trust. As trainers, we want to create positive emotional connections to our learning experiences and of course, avoid negative emotional responses. Relevancy is the first layer, but if we keep “peeling the onion back,” a positive emotional connection is likely a consequence – and this the gold nugget trainers should try to find.

Although we are no longer children, this emotional motivator remains.

When we have a positive emotional connection to the outcome of learning something new, adults will be motivated. For example, a salesperson learning to close a deal faster may lead to more commission. That commission check being cashed may create a rush of endorphins, and more opportunities to schedule family vacations, weekend outings with loved ones, etc. See the emotional connection? Another example is an operations contributor may be interested in a training that upskills their queue efficiency, ultimately getting them out of the office sooner, or creating more time for a pet project their boss approved. Again, the individual experiences a positive emotional consequence from learning. This is typically a win-win scenario for the organization and the individual.

Here’s a little tip for all trainers out there: if you are facing a particularly hard training goal, such as behavior change, find a way to make a strong emotional connection between the learner and them achieving the goal. This will be the fastest way to solve the problem compared to convincing, forcing, or lecturing them on why the behavior needs to shift.

In closing, humans are driven by emotion, even when it comes to learning.

Learning simply happens when we feel the need, the relevancy and even better – when an emotional consequence of completing a learning experience results in more joy, laughter, less anxiety, and making life a little easier. Humans are complex, yet simple; we want connection, and we want to feel good. Motivating someone to learn can use these factors to its advantage; trainers just need to find the connection and communicate accordingly.