The most traditional and researched theory of learning comes out of the behaviorist school of thought in psychology. Most of the principles of learning and organizational Reward Systems and the behavioral performance management approach discussed in this chapter are based on behavioristic theories, or behaviorism.
The classical behaviorists, such as the Russian pioneer Ivan Pavlov and the American John B. Watson, attributed learning to the association or connection between stimulus and response (S-R). The operant behaviorists, in particular the well-known American psychologist B. F. Skinner, give more attention to the role that consequences play in learning, or the response-stimulus (R-S) connection. The emphasis on the connection (S-R or R-S) has led some to label these the connectionist theories of learning. The S-R deals with classical, or respondent, conditioning, and the R-S deals with instrumental, or operant, conditioning. An understanding of these conditioning processes is vital to the study of learning and serves as a point of departure for understanding and modifying organizational behavior.
Pavlov’s classical conditioning experiment using dogs as subjects is arguably the single most famous study ever conducted in the behavioral sciences. A simple surgical procedure permitted Pavlov to measure accurately the amount of saliva secreted by a dog. When he presented meat powder (unconditioned stimulus) to the dog in the experiment, Pavlov noticed a great deal of salivation (unconditioned response). On the other hand, when he merely rang a bell (neutral stimulus), the dog did not salivate. The next step taken by Pavlov was to accompany the meat with the ringing of the bell. After doing this a number of times, Pavlov rang the bell without presenting the meat. This time, the dog salivated to the bell alone. The dog had become classically conditioned to salivate (conditioned response) to the sound of the bell (conditioned stimulus). Thus, classical conditioning can be defined as a process in which a formerly neutral stimulus, when paired with an unconditioned stimulus, becomes a conditioned stimulus that elicits a conditioned response; in other words, the S-R (i.e., bell-saliva) connection is learned. The Pavlov experiment was a major breakthrough and has had a lasting impact on the understanding of learning.
Despite the theoretical possibility of the widespread applicability of classical conditioning and its continued refinement and application to areas such as modern marketing, most contemporary learning theorists agree that it represents only a very small part of total human learning and behavior. Skinner in particular felt that classical conditioning explains only respondent (reflexive) behaviors. These are the involuntary responses that are elicited by a stimulus. Skinner felt that the more complex, but common, human behaviors cannot be explained by classical conditioning alone. When explaining why he was abandoning a stimulus-response psychology, Skinner noted, “The greater part of the behavior of an organism was under the control of stimuli which were effective only because they were correlated with reinforcing consequences.” Thus, Skinner, through his extensive research, posited that behavior was a function of consequences, not the classical conditioning eliciting stimuli. He felt that most human behavior affects, or operates on, the environment to receive a desirable consequence. This type of behavior is learned through operant conditioning.
Operant conditioning is concerned primarily with learning that occurs as a consequence of behavior, or R-S. It is not concerned with the eliciting causes of behavior, as classical, or respondent, conditioning is. The specific differences between classical and operant conditioning may be summarized as follows:
1. In classical conditioning, a change in the stimulus (unconditioned stimulus to conditioned stimulus) will elicit a particular response. In operant conditioning, one particular response out of many possible ones occurs in a given stimulus situation. The stimulus situation serves as a cue in operant conditioning. It does not elicit the response but serves as a cue for a person to emit the response. The critical aspect of operant conditioning is what happens as a consequence of the response. The strength and frequency of classically conditioned behaviors are determined mainly by the frequency of the eliciting stimulus (the environmental event that precedes the behavior). The strength and frequency of operantly conditioned behaviors are determined mainly by the consequences (the environmental event that follows the behavior).
2. During the classical conditioning process, the unconditioned stimulus, serving as a reward, is presented every time. In operant conditioning, the reward is presented only if the organism gives the correct response. The organism must operate on the environment (thus the term operant conditioning) in order to receive a reward. The response is instrumental in obtaining the reward. Table 12.1 gives some simple examples of classical (S-R) and operant (R-S) conditioning.
Operant conditioning has a much greater impact on human learning than classical conditioning. Today, even though Skinner died in 1990, he remains somewhat controversial and his views are commonly misrepresented, the operant theory is still being refined and expanded, historical analyses recognize some limitations but also definite contributions, and applications are being made in areas such as marketing and performance management. Operant conditioning also explains, at least in a very simple sense, much of organizational behavior. For example, it might be said that employees work eight hours a day, five days a week, in order to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves and their families. Working (conditioned response) is instrumental in obtaining the food, clothing, and shelter.
Some significant insights can be gained directly from operant analysis. The consequences of organizational behavior can change the Environmental Situation and greatly affect subsequent employee behaviors. Managers can analyze the consequences of organizational behavior to help accomplish the goals of prediction and control. Some organizational behavior researchers are indeed using the operant framework to analyze specific areas such as escalation of commitment (where a tendency of decision makers is to “throw good money after bad”) as well as more generally the effectiveness of managers at work. In addition, this theory serves as the framework for operationalizing much of behavioral performance management presented in this chapter.