Fred Luthans, James B. Avey and Brett Luthans
Behaviorism is a theoretical foundation with roots in psychology with an intentional focus on observable, measurable behavior as the primary unit of analysis (Luthans, Youssef, & Luthans, 2005). Behaviorism systematically analyzes the relationships between an individual’s behavior and environmental contingencies. The study and practice of behaviorism emphasizes predicting and controlling/managing behavior and thus is especially relevant to organization studies. The behaviorism paradigm is in contrast to the popular cognitive psychology theories in that behaviorism is not focused on internal cognitive or affective processes or indirect measures of beliefs, attitudes or feelings. Whereas cognitive based approaches attempt to understand and explain the multifaceted causes and complexity of human behavior, behaviorism is based on the premise that behavior is a function of its environmental consequences or contingencies (also see Motivation, Contingency Theory). There are four primary historical building blocks of behaviorism. These major foundational contributions are Pavlov’s (1849-1936) classical conditioning experiments, Thorndike’s (1874-1949) law of effect, Watson’s (1878-1958) experiments with human conditioning, and Skinner’s (1904-1990) work and conceptualization of operant conditioning (also see Operant Conditioning). However, applied to organization studies, the most influential application of behaviorism would be Luthans and Kreitner’s (1985) book Organizational Behavior Modification and Beyond. Conceptual Overview
Have you ever wondered how children, adults, and even animals learn to respond to and operate in their world? Early in the twentieth century, Thorndike coined the famous law of effect by systematically studying cats in a puzzle box. Thorndike’s law of effect states behaviors followed by positive consequences tend to be strengthened and increase in subsequent frequency, while those followed by negative consequences tend to weaken and decrease in frequency. Even before Thorndike established the law of effect, a Russian scientist named Ivan Pavlov conditioned several dogs to salivate to the sound of a ringing bell. Originally the bell was sounded with the presentation of food (meat powder, positive consequence) and ultimately the dog’s salivation was in accordance with the bell regardless of food presentation (Pavlov highlighted the stimulus-response phenomenon). In a logical progression, Watson applied the behavioral conditioning mechanism to humans when he conditioned the subject “little Albert” to fear white rats by associating them with a loud, unpleasant noise (negative consequence). In the 1930’s the famous psychologist B.F. Skinner made a significant discovery for modern behaviorism that led to the modern practice of organizational behavior modification. Using rats and pigeons in controlled environments, his studies found that the consequences of behavior were influential in determining, predicting and controlling that behavior. Skinner highlighted the important distinction between respondent conditioning (Pavlovian S-R connection) where the stimuli elicit the behavior and operant conditioning (the organism operates on the environment in order to obtain the desired consequence, or the R-S connection) where the behavior is a function of the consequence. Skinner’s operant conditioning with the focus on environmental consequences as behavioral determinants instead of antecedent stimuli led to the underlying core premise of modern behaviorism. Based on this scientific foundation, the study of behaviorism suggests that we can predict and modify behavior by strategically controlling (i.e., managing) the consequences. This well-known practice of managing behavioral contingencies has become known as “behavior modification.” Modern behaviorism and behavior modification has been applied to organization...