What Is Behavioral Learning Theory, and How Can L&D Teams Use It?
B.F. Skinner, an American psychologist, used behavioral learning to teach pigeons how to play ping pong. In his experiment, a pigeon stood on each end of a ping pong table and pecked the ball toward its opponent. Each time the ball went past the opponent and dropped off the table, the pigeon that pecked it across could eat.
By repeating this, Skinner helped the birds associate the movement of the ball toward a goal with a reward (pigeon food). He argued that, just like pigeons, all human behavior is the result of our environment and the conditioning we receive. The reality is a bit more complex than that, but Skinner was right. We learn by doing.
Behavioral Learning Theory is a school of thought that believes humans learn through their experiences by associating a stimulus with either a reward or a punishment. This learning theory is instrumental in understanding how to motivate humans—your employees—to learn.
The task for L&D leaders then is to use Behavioral Learning Theory to create the right learning environment, provide appropriate courses of action, and help employees form associations between rewards and outcomes. This is critical in motivating employees to become lifelong learners.
Behavioral Learning Theory states that all learning is based on experience. From potty training to performance-based incentives at work, humans use behavioral learning to teach and modify behaviors to achieve the desired outcome.
For example, parents have long used behavioral learning to teach toddlers to eat their vegetables. If a toddler is repeatedly given a sticker each time they finish their peas instead of throwing them to the ground, the child connects the reward (sticker) with the vegetables and will not only expect it but will work toward it. The positive reinforcement helps make healthy eaters of them for life.
In this case, behavior is learned with the help of operant conditioning, where a specific behavior leads to a consequence. Similarly, when employees are given praise or even receive a badge (or bonus) each time they perform well or exceed a desired quota, they are motivated to repeat the behavior in hopes of a reward.
Behavior is also learned through classical conditioning, where two events are unconsciously related even though they may not be intuitively associated with each other. Pavlov’s dog study is a famous behaviorism experiment in which Pavlov rang a bell each time a group of dogs was about to be served their food. Even though the bell was a neutral stimulus, the dogs began to associate the sound of a bell with mealtime. Before they were able to see or smell the food, they would salivate.
Classical conditioning is useful in learning and development to understand behavior patterns and preconceived associations that employees may hold from previous workplace experiences. Having this insight helps you promote desirable behaviors and discourage undesirable behaviors by creating new associations.
Learning and development leaders can apply behavioral learning to the workplace to boost engagement, improve performance, and even pursue behavior modification of less engaged employees.
The key is to create the right environment with a “conditioned stimulus”—a reward that triggers a desired response or behavior in employees. This strategy works regardless of the behavior, whether it’s curiosity, continuous learning, or taking initiative. After all, business growth and innovation depend on continuous learning. Set your team up for success by introducing self-directed learning and gamification, along with active and social learning techniques.
Employees are motivated to seek out learning opportunities and further their own professional development when they repeatedly see self-learning initiatives linked with a reward. For example, when an employee volunteers to take a course or solve a job-related problem, employers could give public praise or provide them with a specialized training opportunity. This “conditioned stimulus” sets a precedent for other employees, who are encouraged to take charge of their own learning.
In today’s work environment, the behaviorist theory is even easier to apply. Gen X, millennials, and Gen Z believe that learning is the key to career growth. In 2020, when the pandemic hit, Gen Z watched 50% more hours of training per learner than in 2019, and 69% reported scheduling more time to learn.
This classical conditioning provides critical insight into how organizations can use self-directed learning opportunities to help employees build skills and promote internal mobility.
When you combine the principles of behavioral learning with game elements like points, badges, and leaderboards in a training context, it has distinct advantages. Playing a game is entertaining and engaging—it motivates learners to keep playing and increases knowledge retention. This is the principle behind gamification.
By nature, games have built-in rewards and gratification in the form of ranks and recognition. This gives learners more tangible goals to chase while giving them the training they need. When learners connect these tangible goals with a feeling of accomplishment, it boosts the quality and frequency of participation, and in some cases, even reduces training time.
The premise of behavioral learning somewhat lines up with the classic 70:20:10 framework of learning, which states that 70% of learning is from on-the-job experiences, 20% from peer interaction, and 10% from formal training. Since the fields of psychology and L&D both agree that behavior depends on observational learning, there is value in providing employees with active learning opportunities that allow them to learn in the flow of work.
Active learning can take the form of a live discussion or collaboration with a peer. Through group interaction, employees can build their understanding of concepts, share their expertise with peers, and problem-solve together. In fact, skill-sharing practices, such as an employee-led workshop on sales tactics from a top performer, have huge benefits in helping organizations preserve their institutional knowledge. Plus, in keeping with the stimulus-response concept of behavioral learning, such practices can be tied to rewards and recognition to motivate employees to share their skills and knowledge.
Social learning through peer feedback, comments, and Reactions helps create a learning environment where employees feel a sense of connection. Instead of passively obtaining information from an instructor, social learning taps into the basic human need for connection and interaction.
A continuous peer feedback loop helps spark new ideas and provides fresh direction without it feeling like criticism. Comments on an article or reactions to training material give employees a voice and make them active participants in the learning process. When learners associate feedback and reactions with learning, it makes them more open to receiving peer inputs.
Need help crafting your peer feedback? We have a handy template for that, here.