Shaping Behaviour through its Consequences The process of behavioural modification

We constandy respond to and cope with the demands of our physical and social environment. While interacting with the environment, we learn to emit (i.e., use) specific patterns of behaviour that are beneficial to us and learn to drop those patterns of behaviour that either have harmful effects or no consequence for us. Operant conditioning deals with the process of learning voluntary behaviour, as opposed to the reflexive or non-voluntary behaviour in our day-to-day lives.

The environmental consequences associated with our voluntary behaviours lead to our learning - that is, to repeat or modify the voluntary behaviours in the future. The learning of behaviour in this manner is called operant, because the voluntary behaviour becomes the operant: the instrument that leads to an environmental consequence.

The overriding principle that explains the operant conditioning process is that the present and future occurrence of a behaviour is a function of the consequences that it brings about or generates. The analysis of behaviour under operant conditioning should be based on three observable elements:

  • • A (the antecedent environmental event),
  • • В (the behaviour or operant), and
  • • C (the consequence of the behaviour).

Thus, behaviour results from the contingency of A^B^C: behaviour (i.e., B) results from a prior event (i.e., A) and a subsequent event (i.e., C). Let’s consider the following example:

Jyoti, the supervisor, sets Harry, the maintenance mechanic, a goal of cleaning and repairing five machines every week. This goal, set by Jyoti, is the antecedent event that precedes and triggers Harry’s behaviour. Harry performs the behaviour of maintaining the five machines in one week. As a consequence of that task behaviour, Harry receives compliments from Jyoti According to operant conditioning, Harry’s present task behaviour follows the antecedent event and his task behaviour in future is determined by the consequence associated with the present behaviour. Since this consequence is pleasant to Harry, he will repeat the behaviour next week. If, instead of the compliment, Jyoti expressed disapproval of Harry’s behaviour, then this disapproval - an aversive consequence which Harry associates with the task behaviour, may cause Harry not to repeat that behaviour. Thus both antecedents and consequences are the environmental determinants of behaviour.

The antecedent environmental event acts only as a stimulus cue that triggers a given behaviour. However, it is the consequence that results from the behaviour that controls the future occurrence of the behaviour. In other words, the frequency of occurrence of a behaviour in the future depends upon the results associated with that behaviour in the past.

This implies that in order to understand employee behaviour in response to the work environment we must consider three questions: (1) what triggers the behaviour? (2) what is the behaviour? (3) what are the consequences of the behaviour?

As stated above, the process of behaviour modification involves controlling two types of contingencies: A^B and B^C. To control the A^B contingency it is necessary to know what stimulus cue triggers the behaviour. For instance, when a manager sets the task goal and notifies employees of it, the notice can act as the antecedent that triggers the task behaviour. However, it is the B^C contingency, also known as the 'contingencies of reinforcement’, that is more critical in determining whether employees will engage in the task behaviour on future occasions.

To understand how the contingencies of reinforcement work, we shall first examine the various types or arrangements of reinforcement contingencies. We will then discuss the various schedules of reinforcement contingencies - that is whether the reinforcement contingencies should be applied on a continuous or on a partial (i.e., intermittent) basis.

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