Reinforcement theory is the basis for the prediction and control of human behavior through the use of contingent rewards that strengthens the behavior and increases its subsequent frequency. Reinforcement theory explains learning through the linkages or connections that are made between behavior and environmental contingencies. It emphasizes the importance of observable, measurable behavior. Environmental contingencies (behavior and its linked-up consequences) are the primary unit of analysis.
Reinforcement theory can be contrasted with cognitive learning theories that attempt to understand and explain the causes of human behavior in terms of internal, mental processes and indirect measures of thoughts, feelings, intentions, and subsequent behavior. Reinforcement theory has its historical roots in Ivan Pavlov’s (1849-1936) classical (S-R) conditioning, Edward L. Thorndike’s (1874-1949) law of effect, John B. Watson’s (1878-1958) experiments with human conditioning, B. F. Skinner’s (1904-1990) operant conditioning (R-S), and, when applied to behavior management in the workplace, Fred Luthans and Robert Kreitner’s organizational behavior modification (O.B. Mod.).
Reinforcement Theory and Learning
The most significant contribution of reinforcement theory is its implications for learning in general and for managing behavior in particular. Thorndike’s early studies (with cats in a puzzle box) provided the well-known law of effect: Behavior followed by positive environmental consequences will increase in strength and subsequent frequency, while behaviors followed by negative or no environmental consequences will decrease in strength and subsequent frequency, and, over time, disappear. As the major premise of reinforcement theory, learning results from the connection between behaviors and environmental contingencies.
Basic research over the years has supported reinforcement theory. For example, Pavlov successfully conditioned dogs to salivate to the sounding of a bell associated with the presentation of food (stimulus-response or S-R). Watson was able to condition “little Albert” to dread white rats by associating them with loud noises. Drawing from Thorndike’s law of effect, Skinner refined reinforcement theory, showing that contingent consequences, and not just antecedent stimuli, were most important in predicting and controlling behavior. He distinguished between respondent conditioning (Pavlovian S-R connection) and operant conditioning (the organism operates on the environment in order to obtain a desired consequence, or the R-S connection). Skinner’s extensive studies provided the foundation not only for reinforcement theory but also the behaviorism school of thought in psychology and behavior management (or O.B. Mod.). In summary, reinforcement theory and learning says that behavior is a function of its contingent consequences. Applied to behavior management and O.B. Mod., it simply says that “You get what you reinforce.”
Reinforcement Theory and Behavior Management
Reinforcement theory provides an approach and specific guidelines for managing behavior. The application of rewards contingent upon the individual exhibiting desired performance behaviors will increase the probability that these behaviors will strengthen and be repeated. As the association or connection is formed between these behaviors and their contingent positive, desired consequences, the individual will learn that increasing the frequency of these behaviors will lead to receiving more of the desirable rewards. This reinforcement approach is called positive reinforcement. For example, if working harder with no errors results in more financial rewards, workers will work harder and try to be accurate.
Another, less effective, reinforcement approach in behavior management is the withdrawal of undesirable, noxious consequences. Individuals are reinforced not only by receiving what they desire but also by avoiding negative consequences. When certain behaviors result in avoiding undesirable consequences, individuals learn to repeat these behaviors more frequently, which is referred to as negative reinforcement. Most important, both positive and negative reinforcement have the same effect of increasing behavior, but the process is different. Under negative reinforcement, workers complete a task on time in order to avoid being chewed out by their supervisor and possibly being fired, whereas under positive reinforcement, they complete the task on time in order to be recognized by the supervisor and possibly receive a raise in pay.
There are other approaches that can be used to decrease the frequency of undesired behaviors. When behaviors are followed by the removal of desired rewards or the application of undesirable consequences, individuals decrease the frequency of their
behaviors. This approach is referred to as punishment and should not be equated with negative reinforcement. Again, negative reinforcement increases behavior, punishment decreases behavior. Under punishment, individuals can learn that reducing or stopping certain behaviors is tied to the elimination of negative consequences or the receipt of positive consequences. For example, service employees will decrease behaviors such as being short or rude with a customer because they know that if they do, they will be punished with admonishment from the supervisor and possibly being fired.
Another approach that can also be used to decrease and over time eliminate undesirable behaviors is to receive no consequences for the behavior. This approach is referred to as extinction. When no consequence (positive or negative) follows a certain behavior, individuals tend to switch to alternative, hopefully more rewarding behaviors, causing the behavior with no consequence to fade away. For example, attention-seeking disruptive behaviors by a work team member will decrease over time if ignored and the desired attention is not forthcoming.
According to reinforcement theory and considerable research, positive reinforcement is a much more effective strategy of managing behavior than negative reinforcement, punishment, or extinction. However, a punishment approach may take effect sooner and thus may be necessary in dangerous situations. For example, if workers are violating safety regulations, exposing themselves or coworkers to imminent danger, then immediate punishment may be both essential and effective in decreasing such potentially destructive behaviors. On the other hand, research has clearly shown that the long-term psychological disadvantages of punishment, which tend to manifest themselves in terms of stress, burnout, revenge, turnover, decrease in commitment, and many other negative outcomes, outweigh the potential benefits. Moreover, positively reinforced behaviors not only lead to more effective performance but also tend to be more resistant to extinction. When the positive consequences decrease over time, the behavior is sustained and may become self-reinforcing. On the other hand, punished behaviors tend to be only suppressed and tend to return soon after the negative consequences disappear.
Although it is vital for consequences to be contingent upon behavior in order for reinforcers to have an impact, it is not necessary for consequences to actually follow behavior every time. Initially, it is important that positive (or negative) consequences follow the behavior to get it tracking in the desired direction. This continuous schedule allows a clear association to be established between behavior and its contingent consequences. However, once this link is created, several other reinforcement schedules can be effectively applied.
Reinforcers can be contingent upon sustaining certain behaviors over time. This is referred to as an interval schedule. For example, paying people weekly for successfully accomplishing assigned tasks would be an example of an interval schedule. On the other hand, some behaviors are not practiced on a regular time basis and thus do not lend themselves to be reinforced on an interval schedule. For example, commissions based on number of cars sold would be an example of a ratio schedule of reinforcement.
Contingent reinforcers would be effective if administered as the desired behavior is sustained over a certain time period (interval) or as it is repeated a certain number of times (ratio). However, in addition, contingent reinforcers can also enhance desirable behaviors if administered at fixed or variable reinforcement schedules. On a fixed interval schedule, the worker is paid every two weeks and on a fixed ratio schedule, and the car salesperson is paid a certain amount for every three cars sold. However, if the interval or ratio at which an individual receives reinforcers is variable, and thus uncertain, such reinforcers will still increase the frequency of desired behaviors. In fact, research shows that the variable-interval and variable-ratio schedules are related to even stronger, sustained behavior, as well as being more resistant to extinction, than the fixed schedules. For example, an employee is rarely promised to get promoted upon exhibiting the behaviors desired by the manager or the organization for a fixed amount of time or for adequately performing the job a certain number of times. However, if employees realize that hard work, productivity, and commitment are related to promotions in this organization (and see themselves and others being promoted accordingly), productive behaviors are likely to result. The promotions are given on a variable schedule and, if fair, can lead to sustained productive behavior and be resistant to extinction.
Reinforcement Theory in the Workplace
Significant applications of reinforcement theory to the workplace have been demonstrated by Luthans and others and have been referred to as organizational behavior modification, or simply O.B. Mod. The O.B. Mod. approach attempts to predict and manage workplace behavior through five specific steps of application: (1) identify critical performance-related behaviors, (2) measure the frequency of these behaviors, (3) analyze the existing antecedents and consequences, (4) intervene with positive reinforcers, and (5) evaluate the results.
Through more than three decades of experimental workplace studies, Luthans and colleagues, as well as many other behavioral management researchers, have been able to clearly show consistent findings regarding various types of reinforcers that can be effectively utilized in workplace settings to increase performance. Specifically, three types of reinforcers were found to result in significant improvements in workplace performance when administered through the five-step O.B. Mod. model: money, performance feedback, and social recognition. Meta-analytical research findings on the studies over the years show that the application of O.B. Mod. in the workplace increases performance by an average of 17 percent. Interestingly, although feedback and recognition involve little if any direct cost, they can yield results that are similar to, and sometimes higher than, monetary rewards. Moreover, unlike money, both feedback and recognition tend to resist satiation. In other words, rarely do employees get “filled up with” or “tired of” too much feedback or recognition. Unfortunately, these non-financial rewards tend to be less emphasized and are greatly underutilized in managing today’s human resources at all levels and types of organizations.
As emphasized earlier, the key to effective reinforcement is that rewards need to be administered contingently upon performance. For example, for monetary rewards to reinforce desired (i.e., those that help attain goals of performance) behaviors, they need to exhibit variation in amount and timing that is directly related to performance. A monthly, fixed-amount paycheck is often not contingently reinforcing performance. For performance feedback to be effective, it needs to be positive, immediate, graphic, and specific. An annual performance appraisal session to justify why an employee will (or will not) receive a pay raise is too often insufficient. For recognition to enhance performance, it should be in the form of personal, one-on-one attention and appreciation. The employee knows the manager has observed the desired behavior and recognizes the contribution.
A random pat on the back or an occasional “Good job!” is not contingent and therefore is not sufficient and is not an effective way to proactively manage behavior through recognition.
Reinforcement Theory and Career Development
Reinforcement theory is not limited to performance management. It can also be applicable to many other areas of human resource management such as career development. Increasingly, managers are struggling with their employees’ diminishing loyalty and organizational commitment and engagement. However, such attitudes should be no surprise for managers, considering what is being reinforced in today’s organizations. In light of the present and likely future high rate of change and increasing uncertainty facing employees, organizations are no longer capable of providing job security and long-term growth opportunities for their employees. Frequent mergers, acquisitions, restructurings, and layoffs are making single-organization careers very rare.
In terms of reinforcement theory, employees are frequently observing that those who align their personal goals with their organizations’, solely depend on their employers for development and growth, and do not explore other opportunities are the ones who face the most negative consequences in times of change. On the other hand, those who take charge of their own careers, take advantage of their organizations for personal development and growth, never cease their job search and career exploration activities, and minimize their own emotional attachment to their organizations tend to be rewarded for such behaviors. In other words, employee career-oriented behaviors are changing as a function of their consequences.
Another example of the role reinforcement theory can play in providing insights into career development concerns new graduates entering the workforce. Throughout school and college years, students are conditioned to a teacher-student relationship that is characterized by well-defined expectations, clear performance standards, and frequent, objective feedback (grades) at regular, short-time cycles. This is in contrast to most manager-employee relationships, where flexibility and adaptability is expected, performance expectations and standards are continuously shifting, and longer time cycles may elapse before feedback, usually subjective, is provided. In other words, consequences in the academic environment may tend to be more contingent upon performance than consequences found by those starting off their careers in the workplace environment. This may help explain initial feelings of confusion and lack of direction for new entrants in a career.
Besides providing insights for the beginning phases of career development, reinforcement theory can also be used to analyze mid-career issues and crises. When reaching the middle of their career, many employees experience career plateaus; they feel stuck at a particular level of their careers. In such dead-end situations, the most common reactions are job dissatisfaction, frustration, unhappiness, and lack of motivation. In terms of reinforcement theory, what these employees are experiencing is a lack of reinforcing consequences for their life’s work. They are undergoing an extinction process in which their work behaviors are followed with little or no consequences. From a career development perspective, unless these consequences for mid-career employees are given attention and better managed, potentially productive employees, with considerable human capital in terms of experience and tacit knowledge, will become apathetic, indifferent, and disengaged. Reinforcement theory provides understanding and support for effective career development that features lateral career movement, job rotation, international assignments, dual-career ladders, work-life balance, and other initiatives that provide mid-career employees with positive consequences that would continue to reinforce their performance. On the other hand, a traditional career often dead-ends with no reinforcing consequences.
Limitations and Recent Developments
Although a reinforcer is any environmental consequence that strengthens and increases the frequency of the behavior, it is important to remember there are individual differences on what this reinforcer may be and the weight or relative importance of it. Despite the proven generalizability of money, feedback, and recognition in workplace settings, the contingent application of such rewards in each specific setting, as well as the frequency, amount, administration logistics, and continuously changing relative importance of each reward, continues to challenge the implementation of organizational behavioral modification programs.
Besides these individual differences, reinforcement theory also provides little understanding or explanation of how reinforcers work because it does not integrate the cognitions and thought processes that cause contingent consequences to shape behavior. Still another limitation is that many situations involve multiple, competing contingencies that interact to shape behavior. Reinforcement theory does not attempt to handle these interactions, which often result from the social context within which contingent reinforcement (or punishment) occurs.
More complex social cognitive theory (SCT) extends reinforcement theory to address the limitations noted above. Albert Bandura’s SCT is based on the continuous reciprocal interaction between the person (cognition), the environment (physical context, including organizational structure and design, and social context, i.e., other people), and the behavior itself. Under SCT, behavior is not only a function of its contingent consequences as in reinforcement theory but is also influenced by the cognitive processes of symbolizing, forethought, observation, self-regulation, and self-reflection.
For example, from an expanded SCT perspective, the role of contingent reinforcers in enhancing performance can be better understood and explained in terms of outcome utility, informative content, and regulatory mechanisms. Monetary rewards tend to be highest in outcome utility (they have direct and instrumental value in acquiring desirable material things). Feedback, on the other hand, is usually highest in its informative content, which individuals tend to seek and value. However, with appropriate (contingent) administration, money and recognition can also be of high informative content. Finally, recognition is strongest as a regulatory mechanism. While immediate recognition and attention takes place in the present, the cognitive capacity for forethought allows for future rewards (e.g., a promotion) to be imagined, linked to present behavior, and thus serves as a reinforcer. In addition, the cognitive capacity for self-regulation in turn allows for present behavior to be shaped accordingly. In other words, SCT provides a depth of understanding, as well as more informed application, in contrast to the more pragmatic reinforcement theory.
Today’s managers, as well as scholars in the behavioral sciences, education, and organizational behavior, have generally come to the realization that we can no longer emphasize any one aspect of the social cognitive triad (the person, the environment, and the behavior itself) at the expense of the others. The social cognitive theory integrates the objectivity and predictive capacity of reinforcement theory, with the depth, realism, and application of social cognitive perspectives. Reinforcement theory contributes greatly to behavior management for performance improvement and has many implications for modern human resource management such as career development. Social cognitive theory is a new development that extends reinforcement theory to overcome some of its limitations and provides a depth of understanding needed for today’s increasingly complex and ever-changing environment.
- Bandura, A. 1986. Social Foundations of Thought and Action.Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Luthans, F. and Kreitner, R. 1975. Organizational Behavior Modification. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman.
- Luthans, F. and Kreitner, R. 1985. Organizational Behavior Modification and Beyond. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman.
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- Stajkovic, A. and Luthans, F. 1998. “Social Cognitive Theory and Self-efficacy: Going beyond Traditional Motivational and Behavioral Approaches.” Organizational Dynamics 26:62-74.
- Stajkovic, A. and Luthans, F. 2001. “Differential Engagement Effects of Incentive Motivators on Work Performance.” Academy of Management Journal 44:580-590.
- Stajkovic, A. and Luthans, F. 2003. “Behavioral Management and Task Performance in Organizations: Conceptual Background, Meta-analysis, and Test of Alternative Models.” Personnel Psychology 56:155-194.