Complex behavior is learned

The individual behavior we introduce here is learning. It is included for the obvious reason that almost all complex behavior is learned. If we want to explain and predict behavior, we need to understand how people learn. What is learning? A psychologist’s definition is considerably broader than the lay person’s view that it’s what we did when we went to school. In actuality, each of us is continually going to school. Learning occurs all the time. We constantly learn from our experiences. A workable definition of learning is, therefore any relatively permanent change in behavior that occurs as a result of experience. How don we learn? Two popular theories explain the process any which we acquire patterns of behavior: operant conditioning and social learning theory.

What is Operant Conditioning?

A behavioral theory that argues that voluntary or learned behavior is a function of its consequences.

Operant conditioning argues that behavior is a function of its consequences. People, learn to behave so as to get something they ant or to avoid something they don’t want. Operant behavior is voluntary or learned rather than reflexive or unlearned behavior. The tendency to repeat such behavior is influenced by the reinforcement or lack of reinforcement brought about by the consequences of the behavior. Reinforcement therefore strengthens a behavior and increases the likelihood that it will be repeated.

Building earlier work in the field, the late Harvard psychologists B F skinner extensively expanded our knowledge of operant conditioning. Even his staunchest critics, who represent a sizable group, admit that his learnt concepts work.

Behavior is assured to be determined from without (learned) rather than from within (reflexive, or unlearned). Skinner argued that causing pleasing consequences to follow a specific form of behavior will increase the frequency of that behavior. People are most likely to engage in desired behaviors if they are positively reinforced for doing so. Rewards for example, are most effective if they immediately follow the desired response. In addition, behavior that is not rewarded or is punished is less likely to be repeated.

You see illustrations of operant conditioning everywhere. For example any situation in which it is either explicitly stated or implicitly suggested that reinforcements are contingent on some action your part involves operant learning. Your instructor asserts that if you want a high grade in the course, you must supply correct answers on the test. A real estate agent finds that high income is contingent to generating many home listings and sales in his or her territory. Of course, the linkage can also teach the individual to engage in behaviors that work against the best interests of the organization. Assume that your boss tells you that if you will work over time during the next three week long busy season, you will be compensated for it at the next performance appraisal. However when performance appraisal time comes, you are given no positive reinforcement for your over time work. The next time your boss asks you to work overtime, what will you do? You may decline. Your behavior can be explained by operant conditioning: If a behavior fails to be positively reinforced the probability that the behavior will be repeated declines.

What is Social Learning Theory?

Individuals can also learn by observing what happens too other people and by being about something as well as by direct experience. For example, much of what we have learned comes from watching models parents, teachers, peers, television and movie performers, bosses, and so forth. This view that we can learn through both observation and direct experience has been called social learning theory.

Social learning theory is an extension of operant conditioning. It assumes that behavior is a function of consequences – but it also acknowledges the existence of observational learning and the importance of perception in learning. People respond to the way they perceive and define consequences, not to the objective consequences themselves.


The influence of models is central to the social learning viewpoint. Four processes determine the influence that a model will have on an individual:

Attention processes:

People learn from a model only when they recognize and pay attention to its critical features. We tend to be most influenced by repeatedly available models we thick are attractive, important, or similar to us.

Retention processes:

A model’s influence will depend on how well the individual remembers the model’s action, even after the model is no longer readily available.

Motor reproduction processes –

After a person seen a new behavior by observing the model, watching must be converted to doing This process demonstrates that the individual can perform the modeled activities.

Reinforcement processes –

Individuals will be motivated to exhibit the modeled behavior if positive incentives or rewards are provided. Behaviors that are reinforced will be given more attention and will be learned better and performed more often than will behaviors that are not reinforced.

How can managers shape behavior?

Shaping behavior: The process of guiding an individual’s learning through graduated steps

Managers should be concerned with how they can teach employees to behave in ways that mot benefit the organization. Thus managers will often attempt to mold individuals by guiding their learning in graduated steps. This process is called shaping behavior.

Consider the situation in which an employee’s behavior is significantly different form that desired by management. If management reinforced the individual only when he or she showed desirable responses, little reinforcement might happen.

We shape behavior by systematically reinforcing each successive step that moves the individual closer to the desired response. If an employee who has continually been 30 minutes late for work arrives only 20 minutes late, we can reinforce this improvement. Reinforcement would increase as responses more closely approximate the desired behavior.

Four ways can be used to shape behavior positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement punishment or extinction. When a response is followed with something pleasant such as when a manager praises an employee for a job well done, it is called positive reinforcement. rewarding a response with the termination or withdrawal of something pleasant is called negative reinforcement. Managers who habitually criticize their employees for taking extended breaks are using negative reinforcement. The only way these employees can stop the criticism is to shorten their breaks. Punishment penalizes undesirable behavior. Suspending an employee for two day without pay for showing up drunk is an example / of punishment. Eliminating any reinforcement that is maintaining a behavior is called extinction . when a behavior isn’t reinforced , it gradually disappears. Managers who wish to discourage employees from continually asking distracting or irrelevant questions in meetings cam eliminate that behavior by ignoring those employees when they raise their hands to speak. Soon , the behavior will be diminished.

Both positive and negative reinforcement result in learning. They strengthen a desired response and increase the probability. Both punishment and extinction also result in learning: however, they weaken behavior and tend to decrease its subsequent frequency.

How can an understanding of learning help mangers be more effective?
Managers can undoubtedly benefit from understanding the learning process. Because employees must continually learn on the job, the only issue is whether mangers are going to let employee learning occur randomly or whether they are going to manage learning through the rewards they allocate and the examples they set. If marginal employees are rewarded with pay raises and promotions, they will have little reason to change their behavior. If managers want certain type of behavior but reward a different type of behavior, it shouldn’t surprise them to find that employees are learning to engage in the latter. Similarly managers should expect that employees will ok to them as models. Managers who are constantly late for work take, tow hours for lunch or help themselves to company office supplies for supplies for personal use should expect employees to read the message they are sending and model their behavior accordingly.