Studying negative decision makes for better training

Calendar Icon September 29, 2008
Reading Time Icon Read Time: 2 min
By Firmwater

Here is a most interesting experiment that was illustrated in the book Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive. It demonstrates that studying negative decision making makes for better training, and for making better decisions in real life. It is excellent reading for all training developers and publishers.


Strength, courage, determination, commitment, selflessness. Some might say that our firefighters should be role models for how we behave both within and outside our organizations. Even though saving lives, and rescuing kittens from trees might not be in your job description, learning how firefighters train for their job, might just help you become an everyday hero in yours.

Behavioural researcher Wendy Joung and her colleagues were interested in examining whether certain types of training programs would be more effective than others, at minimizing errors in judgment on the job. Specifically, they wanted to know whether focusing the trainee on past errors that others have made would provide better training than focusing the trainee on how others had made good decisions in the past.

They thought that training that focused on others’ errors would be more effective for several reasons, including increased attention to the training, and a more memorable training experience. The researchers aimed to test their hypothesis on a group of people whose decision-making skills under stress were vital, and whose decisions carried important consequences; it’s not surprising they chose firefighters.

In the study, a training and development session, that included several case studies, were presented to the firefighters. However, the nature of the case studies differed between two groups of participants. One group learned from case studies that described real-life situations in which other firefighters made poor decisions that led to negative consequences. The other group learned from case studies in which firefighters avoided negative consequences through good decision making.

Joung and her colleagues found that firefighters who underwent the error-based training showed improved judgment, and were able to think more adaptively than those who underwent error-free training. Training is all about influencing others. So, if you want to maximize your influence on employees’ future behaviour, the implications for your organization’s training programs are clear.

Although many companies typically focus their training exclusively on the positive – in other words on how to make good decisions – the results of this study suggest that a sizable portion of the training should be devoted to how others have made errors in the past, and how those errors could have been (and can be) avoided. Specifically, case studies, videos, illustrations, and personal testimonials of mistakes should be followed by a discussion of what actions would have been appropriate to take in these and in similar situations.

Of course, specific individuals don’t have to be singled out by management for their previous poor decision making. These error based experiences can be completely anonymous. However, you might find that some of the more experienced and respected employees are more than happy to donate their error-laden “war stories” to the company’s training archive.

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