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Overview of Reinforcement Theory

Behaviorist B.F. Skinner derived the Reinforcement Theory, one of the oldest theories of
motivation as a way to explain behavior and why we do what we do. The theory may also be known
as Behaviorism or Operant Conditioning (which is still commonly taught in psychology today). The
theory states that "an individuals behavior is a function of its consequences." (Management Study
Guide 2013). Behaviorism evolved out of frustration with the introspective techniques of humanism
and psychoanalysis; some researchers were dissatisfied with the lack of directly observable
phenomena that could be measured and experimented with. In their opinion, it would make the
discipline of Psychology more "scientific" and on par with the core sciences.These researchers
turned to exploring only the behaviors that could be observed and measured, and away from the
mysterious workings of the mind (Funder, 2010). The science of psychology that is often associated
with current era may be considered inadmissible to those that follow Skinners beliefs. As
psychology has frequently been associated with the human mind and the evolution of cognitive
awareness, Skinner looked to move in a different direction. By applying his thoughts on adjusting
motivation through various stimuli, industries such as business, government, education, prisons, and
mental institutions can gain a broader understanding of human behavior. "In understanding why any
organism behaves the way it does, Skinner saw no place for dwelling on a persons intentions or
goals (Banaji, 2011). For him, it was outward behavior and its environment that mattered. His most
important contribution to psychological science was the concept of reinforcement, formalized in his
principles of operant conditioning (in contrast to Ivan Pavlovs principles of classical conditioning,
which along with J.B. Watsons extreme environmentalism strongly influenced his own thinking).
Reinforcement theory has been used in many areas of study including animal training, raising
children, and motivating employees in the workplace. Reinforcement theories focus on observable
behavior rather than personal states, like needs theories do. Reinforcement theory focuses on the
environmental factors that contribute to shaping behavior. Simply put, reinforcement theory claims
that stimuli are used to shape behaviors. There are four primary approaches to reinforcement
theory: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, extinction, and punishment, which will
be covered in a later paragraph.
Reinforcement theory, which is a form of operant conditioning, includes several components. By
analyzing its steps, the Law of Effect and the possible approaches to achieve desired results ensure
that we understand the value of the theory through its application within the workplace.

Law of Effect
Economists and psychologists commonly assume that behavior is shaped by its consequences.
For psychologists, this is known as the law of effect, by which they understand that we and other
animals try different behaviors, assess their effects, and do more of those with better effects and less

with those with worse. This states that people engage in behavior that have pleasant outcomes and
avoid behavior that have unpleasant outcomes (Thorndike, 1913). On this view, the behaviorally
important consequence of a behavior is the information it provides about behavioral outcomes. The
effect of the information is to alter policy (Gallistel, 1998).
In 1911, the American Psychologist Edward Lee Thorndike (1874-1949) published the Law of
Effect, a principle of learning that states, responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular
situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a
discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation. In his animal learning
studies, Thorndike placed hungry cats inside puzzle boxes. Once inside the box, a cat was able to
gain access to food only if it was able to use the latch to get out of the box. Through trial and error,
the cat was able to learn the contingency between its behavior and the reward. Thorndike also
noticed that with more training, the cats managed to gain access to food in increasingly less time.
The figure below exhibits the puzzle box, in which a graph "demonstrates the general decreasing
trend of the cat's response times with each successive trial"

For example, if the cat would press a bar or pull on a string, a door would open allowing the cat
to escape. Once the cat was outside of the box, it would find some food in close proximity, thereby
reinforcing the response (Thorndike, 1911). Thorndike continually repeated this activity over and
over again to formulate his theory. He also discovered that the speed at which the cats escaped from
the box increased with each successful attempt, proving that, not only did the learned behavior
become reinforced, but the desire for reward motivated the performance. Thorndike formulated the

Law of Effect from the test studies which can be summarized as "responses that produce
satisfaction will be more likely to recur and thus be strengthened." (Buskist & Davis, 2008).
"Success brings with it satisfaction, and along with it, a strengthening of the relation of the
experiences. Failure increases dissatisfaction, and the absence of the relation among the
experiences weakens them. Thus, we may compare success to a reward or failure to a punishment
and the desire to repeat success or avoid failure as the inevitable antecedents" (Sharma & Sharma,

The Quantitative Law of Effect

R. J. Herrnstein; a student of B.F. Skinner; published a paper (1970), in which he described the
Quantitative Law of Effect. The Quantitative Law of Effect is one of the fundamental principles of the
reinforcement theory and is defined as a hyperbolic rate equation that states that the rate of behavior
(R) as a function of the reinforcement (r), given by the equation R= (k*r) /(r + r e), where the constant
(k) is the asymptote of the hyperbola and the constant (re) determines how fast the function reaches
the asymptote. For clarification, an asymptote is a line that a function approaches ever so closely,
but never touches.The value of constant (k) depends on the amount of effort the behavior requires,
and the value of (re) depends on other sources of reinforcement in the environment.
According to law, the rate of a particular behavior depends both on its own reinforcement rate and
on the reinforcement rate of other behaviors. From this statement, It follows that operants ( i.e. target
behaviors such as rats lever-pressing ) can be weakened by increasing the reinforcement earned
for alternative behaviors.

Types of Reinforcement
According to Huitt & Hummel (1997), four methods are employed in operant conditioning: positive
reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment. The table
below is derived from the table created by Huitt & Hummel (1997).


Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Reinforcement theory provides two methods of increasing desirable behaviors. One is positive
reinforcement and the other is negative reinforcement.
To avoid any confusion we can think of positive as a plus sign (+) and negative as minus
sign (-). In other words:

Positive Reinforcement: Give (+) what individuals like when they have performed the
desired behavior (Griggs, 2009).

Negative Reinforcement: Remove (-) what individuals do not like when they have
performed the desired behavior (Griggs, 2009).

In the case of negative reinforcement, it is important to remember that negative does not mean
"bad", just the removal of an unpleasant stimulus. Positive and negative have similar connotations in
the application of punishment.
Operant Conditioning and Mental Illness
B.F. Skinner's Operant Conditioning is used in the daily life of many individuals who have autism
and other illnesses. Behavioral therapies include many specific approaches to assist individuals in
changing behaviors. An important part of operant conditioning and positive reinforcement is doing
the same tasks in a repetitive manner to get the same favorable response. In many cases, autistic
individuals enjoy being on a set schedule, one in which they can expect. While some cannot verbally
express their excitement, the routine is important and results in positive behavior in many cases.
Some schedules may include eating meals, visiting a location, using the restroom or seeing the
same people at the same time daily. Positive Reinforcement is used to assist autistic individuals in
learning new behaviors as well.
Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement is, Any pleasant or desirable consequence that follows a response and
increases the probability that the response will be repeated" (Wood, Wood, & Boyd, 2005.).

Positive reinforcement uses the reward system. The reward system is a collection of brain
structures which attempt to regulate and control behavior by inducing pleasurable effects. The
rewards in the workplace include, but are not limited to: monetary bonuses, promotions, praise, paid
holiday leave, and attention. In educational settings the rewards can include: food, verbal praise, or
a preferred item (such as a toy or a break on a swing). Giving rewards may not result in the desired
effect or behavior. The reward must stimulate the person to produce the desired behavior. This
means that the reinforcer should be highly motivating to the individual. For example, in the
workplace a paycheck or a bonus is a highly motivating factor for many people.

B.F. Skinner introduced people to positive reinforcement by conducting experiments on animals,

most notably his rat experiment. Skinner designed a box with a lever inside that released food when
pressed. He placed a hungry rat into the box to see if the rat could figure out how to get to the food.
When the rat was first placed into the box, it fumbled around until it inadvertently hit the lever and the
food was produced. Through several trials, the rat learned to go straight for the lever to produce the
food when it was hungry. Therefore, B.F. Skinner tested positive reinforcement, and concluded it
does produce desired behaviors (McLeod, 2007).
The following clip from CBS's The Big Bang Theory television show displays and explains the
aspects of positive reinforcement, and a quick example of positive punishment.
Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is a, "psychological reinforcement by the removal of an unpleasant stimulus

when a desired response occurs" (Negative Reinforcement, n.d.).

Negative reinforcement uses the reward system. A person is rewarded for desired behavior by
having something unpleasant removed. This removal is the reward. For example, in the workplace a
person may find it undesirable to be monitored closely. If a person is doing their job to the held
standard, they may not be monitored as closely anymore. This removal of the monitoring is the
reward for consistently doing their job well. Another example of negative reinforcement could be a
new employee at a fast food chain having to clean the public bathrooms as part of their job as a new
hire. By performing this well and other tasks, eventually this unpleasant task could be removed as a
way to keep this person interested and motivated to do well as they advance in job title and pay
B.F. Skinner used the rat to demonstrate positive reinforcement, but he also utilized the same test
to prove negative reinforcement. Skinner placed an electric current inside the box. The electric
current was an unpleasant stimulus for the rat. The rat inadvertently hit the lever and learned that
this turned the electric current off. Through several trials, the rat learned that if it went straight to the
lever, it would turn off the current (McLeod, 2007).

Negative Punishment, Extinction, and Positive Punishment

Reinforcement theory provides two methods of eliminating undesirable behaviors. One is negative
punishment and the other is positive punishment.
"Punishment creates a set of conditions which are designed to eliminate behaviour." (Burns, 1995)
Again, to avoid any confusion we can think of positive as a plus sign (+) and negative as a minus
sign (-). In other words:

Positive Punishment: Give (+) individuals what they do not like when they have performed
the undesired behavior (Griggs, 2009). Positive punishment is what we think of when we think of a

Negative Punishment: Remove (-) what individuals like when they have performed the
undesired behavior (Griggs, 2009).

Positive Punishment
The type of punishment most people are familiar with is positive punishment. Positive punishment
is easier for people to identify because it is common in society. It is usually called punishment or
punishment by application (D. Hockenbury & S. Hockenbury, 2010). Positive punishment occurs
when a stimulus is presented following an undesired behavior and subsequent occurrences of the
undesired behavior are reduced or eliminated (Cheney & Pierce, 2004). Using the example of a
chatty co-worker, the employee could be orally reprimanded for spending too much time conversing
with co-workers. It is important to realize that even though consequences such as suspension,
demotions, etc. induce dislike, they do not qualify as punishments unless they lessen or eliminate
the undesired behavior.
Positive punishment is effective in eliminating undesired behaviors but it does have limitations.
Positive punishment has been found to be more effective when the stimulus is added immediately
following the undesired behavior as opposed to applying delayed stimulus. Another factor is
consistent application of a stimulus following an undesired behavior, this is more effective than
occasional application of a stimulus (Cheney & Pierce, 2004). The greatest drawback is that positive
punishment fails to teach desirable behaviors. Furthermore, positive punishment can produce
undesirable emotional reactions such as passivity, fear, anxiety, or hostility (Skinner, 1974; as cited
in Cheney & Pierce, 2004).
Punishment is seen as more acceptable than positive reinforcement because "people believe
they are free to choose to behave in responsible ways to avoid punishment." (Maag, 2001). Our
societal values of independence, and a tendency to view the world in terms of being punished for
bad or immoral behavior tend to predispose us to treat inappropriate behaviors with punishment,
rather than focusing on the value of positive reinforcement for doing the right thing.
Extinction, on the other hand, involves withholding the pleasing stimulus that is maintaining the
unwanted behavior each time the behavior occurs. This happens until the behavior gradually
decreases to zero or the desired level (M. Sundel & S. Sundel, 2005). Using the above example of
the disruptive employee, his supervisor instructs his co-workers to ignore his non work-related
comments and not respond to them. The response from his co-workers is the pleasing stimulus
maintaining his behavior. Without it, the employee no longer chats about non work-related business

and becomes more productive as a result. It is important to remember that extinction

is not permanent and that the behavior may return after the extinction process is complete, a
process calledspontaneous recovery (Coon, 2006).
Skinner found that non-reinforcement of behavior to achieve extinction is much less effective than
reinforcement of behavior that is continuous. This is due to the fact that any intermittent
reinforcement of the unwanted behavior can lead to reoccurrence. "This is why many of our
student's undesirable behaviors are so difficult to stop. We might be able to resist a child's nagging
most of the time, but if we yield every once in a while, the child will persist with it." (Crain, 2004)
Often times, behavior not modified is behavior accepted.
Extinction may decrease the frequency of desirable behavior as well. If good behavior is
consistently ignored, it may cease, just as in the elimination of undesirable behavior (Tosi, Mero &
Rizzo, 2001). For example, an employee regularly stays late at work to assist the next shift in
catching up after a very busy day. No praise or thanks is ever given to the employee by her coworkers or supervisor, so eventually, she leaves work on time and stops assisting the next shift.
Ignoring her good behavior caused its extinction. Tosi et al. (2001) note that, because good behavior
may also be eliminated, "Managers should be sensitive to the wide array of possibilities of extinction
in the workplace" (p. 143).
Negative Punishment
Negative punishment involves removing a pleasing stimulus other than the one maintaining the
behavior in order to decrease the frequency of the behavior. Normally, the behavior decreases
immediately (M. Sundel & S. Sundel, 2005). An example of negative punishment might be an office
worker who disrupts his co-workers by constantly chatting about non work-related subjects. His coworkers usually respond to him and are polite, which is the pleasing stimulus maintaining his
disruptive behavior. His supervisor informs him that, if he remains disruptive, he will not receive his
yearly pay raise. Another form of negative punishment could be the removal of his desk from his coworkers and placement in a more isolated area. The removal of the pay raise and the loss of the
prime location in the office space are the negative punishment in his example because they are
pleasing stimuli, but not the one directly maintaining his behavior (M. Sundel & S. Sundel, 2005).
According to D. Hockenbury and S. Hockenbury (2010), negative punishment may also be referred
to as punishment by removal.
The following clip from the movie Office Space demonstrates an example of negative
Guidelines to ensure effective workplace punishment:

Act swiftly: The closer the disciplinary action is to the actual offense, the more likely it is
that the employee will associate the punishment with the offense or unwanted behavior and not the
dispenser of the punishment (Robbins, Odendaal, & Roodt, 2009).

Be consistent: Punishment must be doled out consistently between employees and

also within individuals. If an employee is punished for lateness, he or she must be punished for
each late occurrence thereafter. If punishments are not consistent, rules will lose impact, there may
be a decline in morale, and employees may question the competence of the dispenser of the
punishment. It is reasonable, however, to consider any mitigating factors in each punishment
situation, such as past history and performance. Punishment may be adjusted in those situations,
provided the rationale is made abundantly clear to all concerned (Robbins et al., 2009).

Suggest alternative behaviors: It is important to clearly explain the reasons for the
punishment and offer the employee alternative good behaviors. Disciplining an employee for an
undesirable behavior only makes clear to him or her, what not to do. Suggesting alternatives will
educate the employee on what is the preferred behavior and make it more likely that the behavior
will be changed to one that is more desirable (Robbins et al., 2009).

Utilize the five to one rule: According to Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer and Vohs
(2001), because bad interactions are more powerful emotionally than good interactions, it is
important to balance the good and bad by more frequently using positive reinforcement rather than
punishment. A good ratio is five enjoyable interactions to one disagreeable interaction (Baumeister
et al., 2001).

Punish in private and praise in public: Private punishment is more likely to be seen as
constructive, and public punishment is more likely to cause embarrassment and negative effects if
done in front of one's peers (Hellriegel & Slocum Jr., 2007).

Punish and Reward. Desirable behaviors should be rewarded and undesirable behaviors
should be punished (Redmond, 2010).

Ramifications of Ineffective and Inappropriate Punishment

When punishing, it is imperative to use caution in following the rules to apply punishment effectively.
The following are five dangers of punishment (Funder, 2007).

Punishment stirs emotion: The punisher may actually derive a great deal of excitement
and satisfaction, thereby fueling further aggressive behaviors. In many instances, punishers can
become completely blind without realizing the severity of their error in losing self-control, thereby
turning the punishment into abuse. Conversely, high levels of fear, hate, desire to escape and selfcontempt can arise in the punished, all causing humiliation, discomfort and pain. Many times
because of this, the punished fails to learn any lesson at all from the punishment because of their
need to escape and the pain involved with the specific punishing behavior.

Punishing consistently is challenging: Applying punishments effectively can be a very

difficult task because the mood of the punisher changes with every circumstance, thereby leaving
the possibility for inconsistency with punishments. Inconsistency is one of the main reasons why
punishment can prove to be very ineffective. The same type of punishments must be adhered to on
all counts. To punish one person one way and another differently will produce unproductive results,
particularly in work settings.

Judging the level of severity is a difficult task: Perceptions of a person being punished
can be vastly different than the person actually doing the punishing. For example, being
reprimanded by your boss can be a very humiliating experience beyond what they could possibly
know. Issues such as psychological distress and the breaking down of confidence levels can create
ill feelings, misunderstandings and, even worse, a desire for revenge.

Punishment can be an education in power: Specifically with children, but also in work
settings, punishments can cause less powerful people to want to strive to become "powerful" by
observing the example they are shown in receiving punishments. For example, abused children
oftentimes grow up and play out their parents same abusive behavior (Hemenway, Solnick, & Carter,
1994; Widom, 1989). In a work environment, an angered employee may attempt a mutiny on their
boss to drive them out of their position.

Punishment can produce a need for concealment: Particularly in an office setting where
the boss utilizes punishment frequently, employees tends to withdraw, keep silent and avoid effective
communication between each other due to the need of avoiding the conflict of punishment. This
causes the boss to lose sight of the dynamics of his employees and office and alienates employee
from feeling safe to work and express themselves to the best of their ability.
Funder (2007) notes that rewards can have the opposite effect. A good worker will always seek
to impress the boss by presenting at every opportunity their positive actions, for which the boss
reciprocates. Through this communication he finds himself more in tune with the inner workings of
his office. This behavior is to be noted in children as well. A child who expects reward will
consistently attempt to impress their parents with their good behaviors, whereas a child who is
constantly under attack and living in fear of punishment will attempt to sever communication as
much as possible with the punisher. In the words of Funder, "punishment works great if you apply
correctly -- but to apply it correctly, it helps to be a genius and a saint (Funder, 2007, p.494)."

Schedules of Reinforcement
A schedule of reinforcement determines when and how often reinforcement of a behavior is
given. Schedules of reinforcement play an important role in the learning process of operant
conditioning since the speed and strength of the response can be significantly impacted by when
and how often a behavior is reinforced (Van Wagner, 2010b). Two types of reinforcement schedules
are: continuous reinforcement and intermittent reinforcement.
Continuous reinforcement is when a desired behavior is reinforced each and every time it is
displayed. This type of reinforcement schedule should be used during the initial stages of learning
in order to create a strong association between the behavior and the response (Van Wagner,
2010b). Continuous reinforcement will not generate enduring changes in behavior, once the rewards
are withdrawn, the desired behavior will become extinct. A good example of continuous behavior is
the process of using a vending machine. For example, a soda machine will give a soda every time
you feed it money. Every so often you may not receive the soda and you are likely to try only a few
more times. The likelihood that you will continuously keep adding money when not receiving any
reward is extremely low so this behavior is often stopped very quickly (Durell, 2000).

Intermittent reinforcement is when a desired behavior is reinforced only occasionally when it is

displayed. In this type of reinforcement schedule behaviors are obtained more gradually; however,
the behaviors are more enduring (defying extinction). Intermittent schedules are based either on
time (interval schedules) or frequency (ratio schedules) (Huitt & Hummel, 1997). Ratio
reinforcement is the reinforcement of a desired behavior after a number of occurrences; while,

interval reinforcement is the reinforcement of a desired behavior after a period of

time. Consequently, four types of intermittent reinforcement schedules exist: fixed interval
schedules, variable interval schedules, fixed ratio schedules and variable ratio schedules.
Fixed Interval Schedules: A reinforcement of appropriate behavior that is delivered after a
specified interval of time has elapsed (Smith, 2010). Heffner offers an appropriate example of an
employee performance review for a raise every year and not in between (Heffner, 2001). However
as the reinforcement is delivered only after a specified amount of time has passed this reinforcement
type of schedule tends to produce a scalloping effect between intervals as displayed in the figure
example below (Huitt & Hummel, 1997).

Only directly before the interval time has elapsed is the desired behavior displayed so as to look
good when the performance review comes around (Heffner, 2001). After the review, a dramatic dropoff of behavior immediately after reinforcement occurs (Huitt & Hummel, 1997). The fixed interval
schedule is a form of continuous schedule and works well for punishment or learning a new behavior
(Heffner, 2001).
Variable Interval Schedules: This is a reinforcement of appropriate behavior that is delivered
after an average interval of time has elapsed (Smith, 2010). Once the behavior has been reinforced,
a new interval of time, either shorter or longer, is specified with the sum total of interval times
equaling the average (Huitt & Hummel, 1997). This is best expressed in the example of a corporate

random drug testing policy. The power of variable reinforcement lies in the fact that individuals do not
know exactly when it is coming. The policy may dictate that a random drug screening will be
conducted every 3 months or so, however because it is random the screening may happen sooner
at 2 months or later at 4 months with the average interval time equaling around 3 months. Because
of the variable nature of this schedule the scalloping effect between intervals is reduced (Huitt &
Hummel, 1997).

As shown in the figure above the variable interval schedule tends to consistently produce more
appropriate behaviors (Heffner, 2001). This schedule of reinforcement is best used when fading out
a fixed interval schedule or reinforcing already established behaviors (Smith, 2010).
Fixed Ratio Schedules: A reinforcement of a desired behavior occurs only after a specified
number of actions have been performed (ex. Factory employees who are paid on piecework or a
fixed piece rate for every piece produced or performance-related pay). Because the fixed ratio
schedule is methodical, it produces a high, steady rate of response. The fixed ratio schedule is also
a form of continuous schedule and works well for punishment or learning a new behavior (Heffner,

(Huitt & Hummel, 1997)

Variable Ratio Schedules: A reinforcement of a desired behavior occurs after a variable number
of actions have been performed (ex. Employees who contribute to a lottery pot, a various number of
tickets will win a various amount of money, which is put back into the pot for the next week). The
number of behaviors required to obtain the reward changes. The variable rate schedules tend to be
more effective than fixed ratio schedules because they generate a higher rate of response and resist
extinction (Redmond, 2010).

(Huitt & Hummel, 1997)

(Woods, Woods, & Boyd, 2005)

The chart below is a recording of response rates of the four reinforcement schedules (Huitt &
Hummel, 1997). The rates of responses are recorded on a device created by Skinner, called the
cumulative recorder (Van Wagner, 2010a).

A chart demonstrating the different response rate of the four simple

schedules of reinforcement, each hatch mark designates a reinforcer being given (Huitt &
Hummel, 1997).

Strengths and Weaknesses of Reinforcement Theory


Provides clues to motivation. Unlike Needs Theory of motivation which focused on

internal needs, Reinforcement Theory is based on external conditions. Within the workplace,
organizational management theorists look to the environment to explain and control people's
behavior. Because of this, it may be easier to motivate a group of workers through external factors
such as pay raise, promotion, etc. (Operant Conditioning, 2006).

Keeps employees involved. Installing a schedule of reinforcement, such as a variable

interval schedule will keep employees on their toes. The employee does not know exactly when a
test or performance review is coming, so they cannot afford to work poorly on a given task
(Redmond, 2010).

Easily applied in organization. Reinforcement Theory deals with learned behaviors,

therefore it is easy to apply to organizational management. Upon joining a company, workers deal
with certain stimuli, responses, and their consequences. Because the behaviors are rewarded or
punished, it can be easy to encourage or change workers' responses by manipulating the stimuli
(Operant Conditioning, 2006).

Impressive research support. Reinforcement Theory has had substantial research done in
the workplace. This research has shown impressive results due to its focus on observable
behaviors. Research has been able to empirically prove that Reinforcement works (PSU WC, L3, p.

Disregards internal motivation. The reinforcement theory only considers behavior and
consequences without considering processes of internal motivation or individual differences
(Redmond, 2010).

Difficult to identify rewards/punishments. One main weakness in dealing with

Reinforcement Theory is the difficulty to identify rewards or punishments (Booth-Butterfield, 1996).
Each human being is different and unique, and Reinforcement Theory has to take this into account.
A reward that works for one person may not work for someone else. For example, one person may
be lacking self-confidence, so higher praise from a manager may act as a reward. If only a raise in
pay were the reward in this situation, the lack of self-confidence would still be evident and an
increase in productivity would not be present.

Hard to apply to complicated forms of behavior. It is not equally reliable in all situations.
Using it to impact behaviors involved in complicated task work can be problematic. It is easier to
reinforce behavior that applies to a simple task because positive and negative behaviors are easier
to keep track of and modify (Redmond, 2010).

Imposes on freewill. The control and manipulation of rewards in order to change behavior
is considered unethical by some (Redmond, 2010).

Effectivity often expires. Even when an acceptable reward or punishment is met, they
often become less meaningful over time (Booth-Butterfield, 1996). The reward of praise seen above,
for instance, becomes much less desirable after the person receives a boost in self-confidence.
Now, the manager may have to move on to another reward to keep the motivation fresh.

Can be complicated. The punishment aspect of Reinforcement Theory can be difficult to

apply well. According to Booth-Butterfield (1996), for punishment to be effective, a few guidelines
may be required:
1. The punishment should be immediate.
2. The punishment should be intense.
3. The punishment should be unavoidable.
4. The punishment should be consistent
In addition, artificial reinforcers often have the effect of reducing the individuals feeling of selfdetermination; and this is likely to reduce motivation to engage in similar activities in the future
(Glasser, 1990).
Findings and conclusions of behaviorism, to a large extent, are based on research with animals.
Thorndike used cats, Pavlov used dogs, and Skinner - pigeons and rats. Many aspects that are
important to human beings, such as problem-solving and thinking process, are not addressed by
behaviorism. The emphasis is on the environmental stimuli that modify behavior, not on any internal
factors that may be present.(Funder, 2010)
Despite the initial success that behaviorism enjoyed, some researchers believed that it ignored
many important psychological phenomena. One of the first ones was German Psychologist
Wolfgang Kohler. Kohler believed that animals, specifically chimpanzees, developed insight
regarding their situation, thereby developing an understanding regarding their condition. The
emphasis here was the immediacy at which the chimpanzees applied their response, as opposed to
a more gradual learned behavior. This indicated a comprehension and understanding of stimuli and
consequences resulting in immediate responses (Kohler, 1925; Gleitman, 1995). Kohler's research
on insight applied to behaviorism would eventually lead to the beginnings of social learning theory,
as well as some cognitive research (Funder, 2007).
The last guideline - the punishment should be consistent - may be the most important. If the
punishment is not consistent, the employee will not associate his or her error with the punishment.
When there is consistency, the employee will try to avoid the punishment by fixing their error and
proceeding in the fashion the manager would like.

Application of Re inforcement Theory in the Workplace

When describing his principles of behavior modification, Skinner simply states, Behavior is
determined by its consequences.
Top managers agree that there are numerous issues that can be helped using applied
psychology techniques in the working environment (Dowling, 1973). In Conversation with
Skinner (1973), He mentions that it is important to identify the desired consequence, which will elicit

the desired behavioral response. Ever since Skinner first published his findings in 1969,
reinforcement theory has been widely studied and implemented in the industrial setting to decrease
the frequency of undesired behavior and increase the frequency of desired behavior. These studies
of applied reinforcement theory have proven that the principles of behavior modification can help
management with issues ranging from reducing absenteeism and tardiness (Gamboa & Pedalino,
1974), to increasing production in their employees (Nelson, Raj & Rao, 2006).
There are many theories that can be used to assist management in employee motivation; the one
that applies to Reinforcement Theory is called the Behavior Modification Model.
The Behavior Modification Model for Reinforcement Theory (2006) consists of the following four

Specifying the desired behavior as objectively as possible.

A good manager is a good leader and a good leader is goal oriented. Informing employees of the
specific goal in mind, making sure they understand it and keeping them focused on the goal is key to
the process.

Measuring the current incidence of desired behavior.

Before a consequence can be enacted, a manager must keep track of each employee's productivity
and quality of work. Once this baseline is recorded and behaviors are identified, then the
reinforcement can begin. With the baseline recorded, it is easier to observe the benefits of using the
Behavioral Modification Model.

Providing behavioral consequences that reinforce desired behavior.

This step involves reinforcing individuals for desired outcomes and providing consequences for
undesired outcomes. For example, individuals that are working above the status quo may get a
reward for their hard work and those that are below par will see this and be motivated to work

Determining the effectiveness of the program by systematically assessing behavioral

It is important to observe the effectiveness of the applied reinforcement, to determine if
reinforcement has been used ineffectively and possibly shed light on a better strategy for next time.
For example, ABC Manufacturing Company found they employed a large number of mothers with
small children. When their children got sick the mothers were naturally absent from work. This was
affecting productivity within the company. Rather than taking disciplinary action against these
employees, the company sought out a solution to the problem and asked the mothers what could be
done to avoid this situation in the future. The logical solution was to provide a day care for the
employees' children. The company assessed the cost effectiveness and decided to give it a try. As a
result, within a few months of the implementation of this daycare program, absenteeism decreased
dramatically and there was a noticeable increase in productivity.
Gitman and McDaniel (2009) provide an excellent example of how reinforcement may be used in
the workplace. According to them, hospitals, for a long time, have been offering surgeons the
coveted option of scheduling their elective surgeries in the middle of the week, leaving them time to
teach, attend conferences, and take long weekends. This scheduling system is advantageous for
the surgeons but problematic for the hospitals due to operating room overcrowding and consequent
surgery delays (Gitman & McDaniel, 2009).
A hospital in Springfield, Missouri decided to remedy this scheduling issue by spreading its
elective surgeries out over five days, rather than two. To convince their surgeons to adopt the new

schedule and give up the old one and its many perks, the hospital used reinforcement techniques
(Gitman & McDaniel, 2009). Surgeons, who ten percent of the time arrived more than ten minutes
late, were fined a part of the price of their surgery (Gitman & McDaniel, 2009).The fines went into a
pool which rewarded those surgeons who were on time the most. As a result of this program, late
surgeries dropped from 16 percent to less than one percent over a span of two years (Gitman &
McDaniel, 2009).
In this program, the fine for late surgeries would be considered negative punishment because
something desirable (money) was removed (negative) in order to decrease the unwanted behavior
(punishment). The monetary reward for being on time the most would be considered positive
reinforcement because something desirable (money) was added (positive) in order to increase the
desirable behavior (reinforcement).
Another example of reinforcement theory in action is the story of Snowfly, a new company that
designs, implements and administers workforce incentive programs. Snowfly's approach to
employee motivation follows reinforcement theory and involves four themes: immediate recognition,
relevant incentive rewards, accountability, and positive reinforcement (Kadlub, 2009). Andy Orr,
president of Press One, signed on to use Snowfly for his call center whose clients include USA
Today and the New York Times. Andy implemented Snowfly because it aligned with his call-center
metrics and offered a way to keep "service levels right in front of our agents (Kadlub, 2009).
Program participants are informed of specific goals they need to achieve and desired behaviors they
need to demonstrate. When employees successfully meet their goals, participant accounts are
credited with points or game tokens. The 170 call center employees can make an additional $0.20 to
$2 an hour as a result of playing Snowflys games (Kadlub, 2009). The size or type of award the
player wins is left up to chance, much like playing the slots in Las Vegas. Since implementing
Snowflys incentive program, Press One has seen a 60% reduction in employee turnover (Kadlub,
Unfortunately the applied reinforcement theory of positive punishment or simply punishment (D.
Hockenbury & S. Hockenbury, 2010) has been put into effect much more often than has other forms
of reinforcement (Waird, 1972). To reduce undesirable behaviors it seems almost natural to deliver a
punishment rather than offer a reward. This idea to quickly punish to reduce undesirable behavior
could conceivably date back to ones childhood, when students were sent to detention for being
disruptive or failing to turn homework on time. However, Waird (1972) offers the notion When we
consistently use punishment to improve performance, it often becomes a reward. That reward is the
fact that you are not being punished for not behaving in the undesirable manner. However the
behavior that is being reinforced is reducing undesired behavior instead of actually trying to increase
desirable behavior (Waird, 1972). To increase desirable behavior, and ultimately performance in the
working environment, Waird (1972) suggests the implementation of positive reinforcement as it as
directly orientated to desired results.
Does Positive Reinforcement Really Work?
Wiard (1972) states the answer is: Yes, positive reinforcement is a critical management skill. In
his article Why Manage Behavior? A Case for Positive Reinforcement he outlines three
considerations for the successful implementation of any positive reinforcement campaign.
1. Desired levels of performance should be very specifically determined, and once
determined, they should be clearly stated. If you do not know how you should be performing, how
can you be expected to perform?
2. Rewards for desired performance should be appropriate to the performance, but
above all they should be rewarding. Different people elicit different feelings to different rewards.
Ensure that the reward you are providing is actually rewarding to the person that is being rewarded.

3. Rewards should follow desired performance as closely as possible. The connection

must be made between the desired performance and the reward.
Many people may find it difficult to comprehend increasing desirable behaviors through positive
reinforcement systems instead of reducing undesirable behaviors through punishment. However
taking the time to positively reinforce people for performing desirable behaviors could lead to more
people performing more desirable behaviors, and ultimately lead to a better world (Waird, 1972).

Useful Tools for Reinforcement Theory in the Workplace

Organizational Behavior Modification/Management (OB Mod):
OB Mod systematically applies reinforcement theory in workplace applications (Bucklin, Alvero,
Dickinson, Austin, and Jackson, 2000). A very publicized example of OB Mod in organizations was
the Emery Air Freight company. This company had organizational problems such as employees not
using the correct sized containers for shipping. The results were hefty costs in shipping for the
company. As a solution, Emery Air Freight began using OB Mod to increase productivity and reduce
costs. Managers chose to focus on feedback and positive reinforcement. This allowed managers to
specify desired behaviors and praise employees for their improvement and progress. The effect of
implementing OB Mod was apparent after one day. Performance increases from 45 percent up to 95
percent (standard). Emery Air Freight saved $3 million in costs alone (Redmond, 2010).
Why organizations use OB Mod:
1) To increase productivity
2) To reduce absenteeism
3) To increase safety behaviors
4) To reduce lost time due to injuries
(Redmond, 2010)
Below is a model of OB Mod, also called Social Learning (Luthan and Kreither, 1974):

Ethical Considerations of OB Mod:

While OB Mod can help to motivate a change in behavior within organizations, there are ethical
concerns that need to be considered in the use of OB Mod in an organization. The first ethical
consideration is that OB Mod can compromise an individuals freedom of choice. The best interest
of the employee is not always considered when the reinforcement strategy is implemented. The OB
Mod may benefit the organization by increasing production but may not improve the situation for the
employee through personal or professional growth. The second ethical consideration is that of
potential manipulation. When the desired behaviors are set in place by the managers, the
employees may feel as though they have little or no choice but to follow the behaviors suggested by
management. OB Mod, like other behavior motivation techniques, possesses the potential for
misuse (Griffin, Moorehead, 2010).