Behaviour and Cognition

The rats were placed inside a “Skinner-box” where there was a lever. After wandering around the box the rat would eventually press the lever, either accidentally or out of curiosity. Once the lever had been pressed a light would come illuminate and the rat would be given some food through a shoot. The rat eventually would associate the pressing of the lever with the presentation of food and hence the rat would press the lever more and more frequently in order to rewarded with the food.

The pressing of the lever was what the researcher desired the rat to do, so when the rat performed this action, its behaviour was reinforced by the presentation of food. This is known as positive reinforcement as desirable behaviour was encouraged by introducing a positive consequence. In the context of the work place, managers may positively reinforce the preferred behaviour of employees by providing praise or even bonuses when they perform the desired tasks such as higher productivity. A manager could also negatively reinforce behavior. An example here could be an employee who was not working hard and was frequently getting in trouble for it may work hard one day and so avoid getting grief from their boss. The avoidance of this negative consequence is reinforcing the behaviour.

The manager could also chastise the employee by scolding them or cutting their wages to stop them behaving in undesired ways, this is known as punishment. Another effective method is partial reinforcement, for example an employee would not get a bonus or praise after every task they complete but rather after a number of accomplished tasks. The effectiveness of this type of reinforcement is paradoxical. Since every reinforcement of the desired behaviour increases the likelihood that that behaviour will reoccur then a higher number of reinforcements should lead to more strongly established behaviour, however, research has shown that a group which is reinforced 100% of the time will reach extinction of that same behaviour much quicker than the group which was only reinforced 30% of the time. This could be used by managers more effectively than continuous reinforcement to promote efficient working.

A conflict managers may face when using reinforcement (especially negative reinforcement) is that even though the workers initially responded to the supervisor becoming more disciplinary and even tyrannical by being fearful and increasing productivity, they may eventually strike or sabotage their work or to flee the environment completely by changing jobs. These theories have caused the development of a technique known as behaviour modification.

According to Kazin, this is the systematic application of scientific principles of learning to change behaviour on a person-by-person or case-by-case basis. In management, individuals may seek the services of a qualified behaviour modifier to alter conduct that they personally consider dysfunctional and beyond their own ability to control without professional assistance. Supervisors can often be taught behaviour modification techniques to enable them determine why some subordinates have learned dysfunctional behaviour on the job. This enables the supervisors to create a new environmental experience for the employees that increase the rate of functional behaviour.

Socialisation is the process through which an individual’s pattern of behaviour and their values, attitudes and motives are influenced to conform with those seen as desirable in a particular organisation, society or subculture (Huczynski and Buchahan). Albert Bandura was one of the most dominant supporters of the social learning theory. His “BoBo Doll Study: Bandura made of film of one of his young female students beating up a bobo doll. The woman punched and kicked the clown, and hit it with a hammer while shouting sockeroo” . Bandura showed his film to groups of play school children who then were let out to play. In the playroom were several researchers observing and recording the actions of the children, a brand new bobo doll, and a few little hammers. The children punched it and shouted “sockeroo,” kicked it, hit it with the little hammers, they imitated the young lady in the film.

These children changed their behaviour without first being rewarded for approximations to that behaviour. This does not fit in well with standard behaviouristic learning theory. He called the phenomenon observational learning or modelling, and his theory is usually called social learning theory. In the work place, if a new recruit is watching someone else performing task, especially if they are an already established member of the workforce, they are likely to mimic these actions themselves. If that same “role-model” was to receive praise for their work we would be even more likely to copy them, as their behaviour had been reinforced.

However, if we adopt the behaviour of someone else and when we perform these actions to our managers and are punished for them it is unlikely that we would repeat them. A process of extinction may occur if our role model was to constantly receive praise for their behaviour that when we imitate, we do not receive any kind of reinforcement for doing. This behaviour would eventual become phased out.

Conversely, cognitive learning would claim that learning is a process of acquiring new knowledge and not a change in behaviour. The response is what illustrates that the knowledge has been gained but it is the cognition, rather than the response that is the essence of what has been learned (Dickinson (1987). The cognitive theory puts importance on mental processes that behaviourists disregard.

The controversy therefore has implications for organisations and management practices, as managers must decide how to train their employees. Training is when learning events are planned in a systematic fashion. These must be related to events in the work environment. This training is the methodical acquisition of new skills and concepts, which will result in more productive and efficient performance on the job. Training should be planned with an awareness of how people learn and what would facilitate learning, including what would help consolidate it. This is more of a cognitive process. However, motivating employees I believe to be more a behaviourism forte, through the use of operant conditioning. Behaviour modification would appear to be slightly unethical to have imposed on a human and I think that socialisation would be more ecologically valid also.


Huczynski and Buchanan (2001) Organisational Behaviour Prentice Hall

Lieberman D.A. (1993) Learning: Behaviour and Cognition, Brooks/Cole Publishing Company

Blackman D. (1974) An Experimental Analysis of Behaviour Methuen and Co. Ltd

Kazdin A.K. (1978) History of Behaviour Modification, University Park Press

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