Use of Skinner’s Reinforcement Theory in Behavioral Modification

What is Behavioral  Modification?

All organisations are set up with particular core goals and aims in mind. Various resources including money, machines and manpower are utilized to achieve these goals. Modern businesses often refer to their Human Resources (manpower) as their biggest and most important asset and it is widely understood that this single resource plays a vital and irreplaceable role in the attainment of success and the achievement of an organisation’s objectives. Thus, human behavior at work plays an essential role in the smooth functioning of day to day activities as well the targeted long term goals. It is essential for a manager to posses the skills to identify and predict undesired behavior and bring about required changes in order to make human behavior at work productive and supportive to the organisation’s goals.

In business language the art of modifying and moulding human behaviour is known as behavioural modification. It is a conscious effort on behalf of a supervisor or manager to reinforce each successive step that moves an individual towards or away from a desired or undesired behaviour in the work environment.

Behavioural modification is rooted to the fact that behaviour depends on consequence and is concerned with inducing new behavioural patterns in an individual that would benefit the organisation.

What is Reinforcement?

Reinforcement is a term that is heard often when discussing behavior modification and is essential to conditioning. In such a context it refers to anything an individual might find rewarding. Reinforcement is related to the psychological process of motivation and is environmentally based. Reinforcers are external environmental events that follow a desired behavior. Reinforcement could be either positive or negative and is likely to strengthen the response and increase the probability of repetition.

Skinner’s Reinforcement Theory

B.F. Skinner, an American psychologist and professor at Harvard University is considered to be one of the pioneers of behavioral modification. Most modern day behavioral modification concepts are a result of Skinner’s work and his most renowned theory is the Reinforcement Theory. Skinner’s reinforcement theory is based on the Law of Effect which states that an individual is highly likely to repeat behavior when followed by favorable consequences (reinforcement) and tends not to repeat a particular behavior when it is followed by an unfavorable consequence.  Skinner was of the opinion that internal requirements and drive of an individual are inconsequential and that individuals can be taught to exhibit behaviors based on events that follow the behavior.

The theory focuses on overriding unwanted behavior and influencing required behavior aided by the use of rewards and punishment that are dealt out as a consequence of the behavior. This method of behavior change is commonly known as operand conditioning.

There are two essential prerequisites for the effective application of the Skinner’s Reinforcement Theory in real life scenarios, they can be found below.

  1. Managers must be able to find a consequence that is strong enough to have an impact on the targeted employee.
  2. Managers must be able administer a consequence in such a manner that it is easy for the employee to understand the relation between the behavior that is targeted for change and the resulting consequence.

According to Skinner’s reinforcement theory, managers must know if they are required to increase or decrease the probability of an event. Once this has been decided a manager must then determine if the use of a positive or negative consequence is appropriate. Finally, a manager must consider if it is correct to apply or withhold the consequence to gain a desired behavioral change. The answer to these dilemmas is answered through four unique alternative consequences: Positive Reinforcement, Negative Reinforcement, Punishment and Extinction. They have been explained in greater detail below:

  1. Positive Reinforcement:  Positive reinforcement encourages behavior by following a response with a favorable consequence. An employee who receives recognition or any other reward is likely to repeat the behavior. It is advisable for management to have a dedicated program for positive reinforcement as it has been documented to increase job performance and satisfaction.
  2. Negative Reinforcement:  Negative Reinforcement is often confused with punishment. While punishment is aimed at decreasing the probability of an undesirable act, negative reinforcement is the termination or withdrawal of an unpleasant consequence following a desired behavior. Negative reinforcement strengthens and increases the repetition of the behavior.
  3. Punishment:  The use of punishment as a managerial strategy is becoming more common. It is applied by confronting an undesired behavior with an unwanted or uncomfortable consequence and it is meant to discourage repetition of the behavior in question. Punishment discourages certain behavior but does no have a direct impact on enforcing a positive behavior either. Punishment has the potential to sour work relationships and thus must be used with caution after evaluation of all relevant aspects of the situation.
  4. Extinction:  Extinction is the act of withholding positive reinforcement with the aim of decline and eventual cessation of an unwanted behavior. Extinction is equally capable of ending good/acceptable behavior as well if the manager unknowingly fails to recognize an employee’s contribution over time. The most common example of unwanted extinction is when an employee’s suggestions and inputs are ignored by a superior, it often leads to the employee holding back his/her opinions in the future and the chance that a helpful input will never see the light of day increases.

Reinforcement Schedules

The timing of reinforcement is paramount to its success, in professional and academic circles the timing of reinforcement is referred to as reinforcement scheduling. In real life work settings it is next to impossible to continually reinforce desired behavior.

Since continuous reinforcement is not practically viable, reinforcement is commonly run according to an intermittent schedule. C.B. Ferster along with B.F. Skinner developed an intermittent system with the following four schedules;

  1. Fixed Interval – A reinforcer is applied after the passage of a certain period of time post the occurrence of the desired behavior. e.g. A manager praises individuals in his team only once a week at the Monday morning meeting. In this case the interval is one week and the employee receives recognition for any amount of work done in that specific seven day span.
  2. Variable Interval – A reinforcer is applied at a random stage with no identifiable or definite period of time. e.g. The management team promotes an employee to position of higher authority after an eight month period after recognizing his contribution and consistent performance over an unrelated period of time.
  3. Fixed Ratio – A reinforcer is applied only after a fixed number of desired events have passed. e.g. A sales executive receiving a bonus after he’s achieved a certain targeted number of sales.
  4. Variable Ratio – A reinforcer is applied only after a certain number of desired results, however, the number of desired results changes from time to time or with different situations. e.g. An employee receives time-off with pay or an award.

The above four schedules are referred to as methods of Partial Reinforcement, where responses are reinforced only part of the time.

Criticisms and Limitations of Reinforcement Theory

There are many criticisms leveled against the Reinforcement Theory, the strongest accusing the system of completely ignoring cognition amongst human beings. It has been argued that a purely theoretical approach fails to address the impact that any alternate motivations might have on human behavior. The Reinforcement Theory also fails to explain altruism (selfless deeds) whose sole aim is to help another person.

Looking past these criticisms the Reinforcement Theory does still have further limitations in practice, a few which are listed below.

  1. Reward and punishment are bound to alter from person to person based on personal preferences and also based on the circumstances under which they are dealt out. Rewards might vary in their attractiveness from one employee to the next and likewise punishment too can have a range of reactions from rage to total indifference.
  2. Managers are often confronted with situations that require them to re-think their reward and punishment strategy as it is quite common for reinforcers to lose their value/effect as time goes by. Human nature, be it a child or grown professional causes us to lose interest or become oblivious to receiving rewards and reprimands once they are seen as a norm. Just like a child loses interest in candy as a reward, a professional isn’t always driven by just the promise of a bonus or a few extra days of paid leave and can often be seen to expect it as part of normal procedure and not an incentive.
  3. It is difficult for the manager to be in complete control of all sources of reinforcement. It is very common for an employee’s peer group to be a stronger reinforcer than any kind of punishment.
  4. The system of rewards does not always bring about an internal change, the desired change is just a response to the reward offered. Once the reward is withdrawn, the likelihood of the employee reverting to old behavioral patterns is high.
  5. Punishment is not always easy to deliver. It is an instrument that must be used with care. Punishment must be consistent and unavoidable, it must follow the undesired act closely (i.e. it must be immediate) and must also be firm.
  6. Punishment can lead to anger, fear and a range of other negative emotions that are undesirable at work. These emotions will be associated with the manager or superior who inflicts punishment.

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