What can L&D learn from Black Friday?

5 brainwaves to up learner engagement

Written by Alastair Roy
Published 16 November 2020
What can L&D learn from Black Friday?

You head out to buy that discount smartphone. By the time you get to the front of a Black Friday queue, they’re all sold out. But you’ve come this far and can’t walk away empty-handed. So, you grab something – anything!

Later that evening, as you battle to set up a wireless printer, you tell yourself you can now print out all those pics of your dog.
You’ve been duped by what behavioral economists call the ‘sunk cost fallacy’ and ‘post-purchase rationalisation.’ What’s more, you’ve blown $100, discovered your Wi-Fi doesn’t reach the spare room, and ruined your Friday night.
We’ve all been there. But you can also use the psychology of panic buying to bring some positivity. Like encouraging people to learn, develop, and better themselves. Here’s how.

1. Create a sense of urgency

As consumers, we face ‘implied scarcity’ every day. It’s when retailers pique our interest by claiming a product is in high demand or short supply. In fact, the last TV on the shelf is likely to be a high inventory item that retailers need to shift.

But that’s all behind the scenes. Black Friday feeds off the fact that snapping up a ‘limited’ item makes it feel more valuable. [1] It’s the same logic that drives you to binge that TV show before it slips off your TiVo box.
We’re not saying that an e-learning course is as sexy as a Netflix show. But you can still create this sense of urgency. Say, you have a bank of online learning resources. With topical content that changes every week, learners will be enticed to click and read before resources slide off a What’s New? section.

2. Lay out your L&D store

Spend a little on Black Friday; chances are you’ll spend more. When we shop, we get a dopamine hit, which makes us want to buy one more thing before checking out. [2]
And retailers account for this brain chemistry. Experts in 'retail ergonomics' lead you counter-clockwise around the store, past high-margin items at eye-level and around displays. Online, accessories hover by that ‘buy now’ button. [3]
It turns out that completing tasks also lights up the pleasure part of our brain. The more people learn, and see their progress, the further they’ll want to delve into self-development. Here are a few tricks to keep learners jacked and coming back for more:
  1. Create a learning log on your L&D platform that lets people track their progress
  2. Place useful resources at the end of an e-learning course to encourage employees to continue their self-development and put learning into practice
  3. Add ‘Recommended Content’ to your toolkit that relates to what people have just learned.

3. Follow the crowd

It’s not just retailers that influence what we buy – or how we behave. It’s also the shoppers around us.
Psychologists coined the term ‘herding’ to describe the comfort of fitting in with groups. So, if our peers are spending money, doing the same becomes an act of social cohesion. [4]

But herding doesn’t just have to lead to Walmart smash ‘n’ grabs. People can also follow peers to help make learning the norm. To lead the way:
  • Let your learners recommend and share content they find useful
  • Encourage employees to run virtual workshops in their area of expertise
  • Set up a forum or space for co-workers to collaborate and share what they learn.

4. Increase pleasure

Neuroscientists wanted to delve deeper into the Black Friday buying process. So, researchers used MRI scans to reveal what happens to our brains when we shop.
The results showed that when we see a lower than expected price, our medial prefrontal cortex lights up. That’s the part of the brain responsible for decision-making. When we see higher than expected prices, the insula takes over – where we register pain. [5] When shopping on Black Friday, consumers are choosing between immediate pleasure or pain. [6]
In the world of work, this pleasure/pain standoff leads to procrastination. That’s when the immediate hassle of a task feels more real than long-term success.
To help learners break through the barrier, show them the benefits of watching that how-to video. What new skills or knowledge will they gain? And will these new skills make them feel more confident, energized and creative?
And leave out the L&D lingo. Tell people straight, "This course will help you hit your sales targets – and boost your bonus."

5. Flip the ‘sunk cost fallacy’

Finally, the ‘sunk cost fallacy’ that lumbered you with a printer can also be channelled for good.
Studies show that simply starting a task can hardwire your brain to finish it. Psychologists call it the Zeigarnik Effect – when unfinished tasks stick in your memory and thoughts pester you till you complete them. [7]
You can help learners by encouraging them to book time for self-development. Managers can use their one-on-ones to help them identify areas to improve – and start already!

[1] Kevin Roose, ‘Why Black Friday Is a Behavioral Economist’s Nightmare’ (2012). Available at: http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2012/11/black-friday-a-behavioral-economists-nightmare.html (accessed 8 November 2019).
[2] Derek Thompson, ‘11 Economic Lessons to Make You a Smarter Shopper For Black Friday’ (2014). Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/11/11-economic-lessons-to-make-you-a-smarter-shopper-for-black-friday/383236/ (accessed 8 November 2019).
[3] Kevin Roose, ‘Why Black Friday Is a Behavioral Economist’s Nightmare’ (2012). Available at: http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2012/11/black-friday-a-behavioral-economists-nightmare.html (accessed 8 November 2019).
[4] ‘Consumer indulgences on #BlackFriday explained’ (2018). Available at: https://www.iol.co.za/business-report/economy/consumer-indulgences-on-blackfriday-explained-18228814 (accessed 8 November 2019).
[5] and [6] Kevin Roose, ‘Why Black Friday Is a Behavioral Economist’s Nightmare’ (2012). Available at: http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2012/11/black-friday-a-behavioral-economists-nightmare.html (accessed 8 November 2019).
[7] Jessica Stillman, ‘5 Scientifically Proven Ways to Beat Procastination’ (2014). Available at: https://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/5-scientifically-proven-ways-to-beat-procrastination.html (accessed 8 November 2019).

About the author

Alastair Roy

Alastair Roy

Content Editor/Writer
Alastair brings 15 years' experience writing, editing and prodding at content. During that time, he’s picked up copywriting, content marketing and video editing skills. Along with two shirts and about a stone in weight. At Emerald Works, he enjoys creating resources that help people better themselves.

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