Theories of Learning

Learning is an important psychological process that-determines human behavior. Learning can be defined as “relatively permanent change in behavior that occurs as a result of experience or reinforced practice”.

Important theories of learning are:

1. Classical Conditioning

The work of the famous Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov demonstrated the classical conditioning process. When Pavlov presented a piece of meat to the dog in the experiment, Pavlov noticed a great deal of salivation. He termed the food an unconditioned stimulus and the salivation an unconditioned response. When the dog saw the meat, it salivated. On the other hand, when Pavlov merely rang a bell, the dog did not salivate. Pavlov subsequently introduced the sound of a bell each time the meat was given to the dog. The dog eventually learned to salivate in response to the ringing of the-bell-even when there was no meat. Pavlov had conditioned the dog to respond to a learned stimulus. Thorndike called this the “law of exercise” which states that behavior can be learned by repetitive association between a stimulus and a response.

Classical Conditioning - Theories of Learning

Classical conditioning has a limited value in the study of organizational behavior. As pointed out by Skinner, classical conditioning represents an insignificant part of total human learning. Classical conditioning is passive. Something happens and we react in a specific or particular fashion. It is elicited in response to a specific, identifiable event. As such it explains simple and reflexive behaviors. But behavior of people in organizations is emitted rather than elicited, and it is voluntary rather than reflexive. The learning of these complex behaviors can be explained or better understood by looking at operant conditioning.

2. Operant Conditioning

An operant is defined as a behavior that produces effects. Operant conditioning, basically a product of Skinnerian psychology, suggests that individuals emit responses that are either not rewarded or are punished. Operant conditioning is a voluntary behavior and it is determined, maintained and controlled by its consequences.

Operant conditioning is a powerful tool for managing people in organizations. Most behaviors in organizations are learned, controlled and altered by the consequences; i.e. operant behaviors. Management can use the operant condi­tioning process successfully to control and influence the behavior of employees by manipulating its reward system.

3. Reinforcement  Theory

Reinforcement is anything that both increases the strength of response and tends to induce repetitions of the behavior. Four types of reinforcement strategies can be employed by managers to influence the behavior of the employees, viz., positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, extinction and punishment.

Reinforcement  Theory - Theories of Learning

  • Positive Reinforcement : Positive reinforcement strengthens and increases behavior by the presentation of a desirable consequence (reward). In other words, a positive reinforce is a reward that follows behavior and is capable of increasing the frequency of that behavior. There are two typos of positive: reinforces: primary and secondary. Primary reinforcers such as food, water and sex are of biological importance and have effects, which arc independent of past experiences. For instance, a primary reinforcer like food satisfies hunger need and reinforced food-producing behavior. Secondary reinforcers like job advancement, recognition, praise and esteem result from previous association with a primary reinforcer. Primary reinforcers must be learned. In order to apply reinforcement procedures successfully, management must select reinforcers that are sufficiently powerful and durable.
  • Negative Reinforcement : The threat of punishment is known as negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcers also serve to strengthen desired behavior responses leading to their removal or termination.
  • Extinction : Extinction is an effective method of controlling undesirable behavior. It refers to non-reinforcement. It is based on the principle that if a response is not reinforced, it will eventually disappear. Extinction is a behavioral strategy that does not promote desirable behaviors but can help to reduce undesirable behaviors.
  • Punishment  : Punishment is a control device employed in organizations to discourage and reduce annoying behaviors of employees.

Learning Theories and Organizational Behavior

The relevance of the theories of learning for explaining and predicting of organizational behavior is marginal. This does not mean that learning theories are totally irrelevant. Learning concepts provide a basis for changing behaviors that are unacceptable and maintaining those behavior that are acceptable. When individuals engage in various types of dysfunctional behavior such as late for work, disobeying orders, poor performance, the manager will attempt to educate more functional behaviors.

Theories of learning   can also   provide   certain   guidelines   for   conditioning organizational behavior. Managers know that individuals capable of giving superior performance must be given more reinforces than those with average or low performance.

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