Rewards/Reinforcement

Learning about the relationship of environmental events and behavior is known in psychology as instrumental conditioning. Instrumental conditioning has been studied extensively since the late 1800s, when a psychologist named Dr. E. L. Thorndike devised the “law of effect.” The law of effect, in its simplistic form, is a successful behavior will increase the probability that it will occur again in similar circumstances. The law of effect is a powerful determinant of both human and animal behavior. There are 4 basic principles of instrumental conditioning, all of which control individual behaviors: (1) reward, otherwise known as positive reinforcement; (2) punishment; (3) escape; and (4) omission. This post centers on the principle of reward/positive reinforcement. A reward increases the probability that a response related to it will recur. When one receives a reward/positive reinforcement for doing something, he/she is likely to repeat the action that resulted in the reward because it is desirable to obtain the reward. Rewards for people, as opposed to other types of animals, can be extrinsic or intrinsic. Extrinsic rewards are tangible, such as rewarding a child for good behavior with a gold star, rewarding a dog for learning a new trick with a tasty treat, or paying a bonus to an employee for a job well done. Intrinsic rewards are intangible, however, they are often more meaningful and likely to result in greater motivation than extrinsic rewards. Intrinsic rewards include working hard because one enjoys hard work, practicing one’s musical instrument because one enjoys listening to beautiful music, and doing whatever one enjoys because of the experience itself, instead of being “paid” to do so. Rewards and positive reinforcements are a huge part of our daily lives, but rarely do most people take the time to think about the reasons why they do the things they do. Think about your life and the types of things that you find rewarding and other things that are not rewarding. Psychological principles are a part of our existence and, for me, studying psychology is tremendously rewarding!

Over our many years in business, we have used rewards in the form of bonuses or gifts to employees for jobs well done. These have taken various forms, whether end of year/holiday bonuses or a bonus for a research day completed well, as well as other forms, like gift cards for dinners or weekend getaways. As a business owner, it seems like the right thing to do. And, overall, we have felt good about giving the bonuses. Most of the time, they have seemed appreciated. But, not always, as in the example of someone to whom we gave a bonus check only to have him quit with short notice after he took a vacation. That bonus was paid as a “pay it forward” incentive for him – it worked out to his benefit, not ours. And, there are other examples when our generosity was “taken” with little “given” in return. While these examples are few, these are, unfortunately, strong negative memories. Further, I am unsure whether these rewards incentivize everyone. As an example, our current lead Research Associate does an excellent job on research days – she’s on top of things. No one is perfect, but she’s one of the best. Yet, I don’t know that she performs as well as she does because she expects a tangible reward (which we do pay her), or because she finds doing a good job to be rewarding in and of itself. Melissa and I are that way, that is, we find doing a good job rewarding, though, of course, we like to be paid. But, we’ve taken on select pro bono cases out of a desire to help and because of the intrinsic rewards that come from doing so. The conundrum for the business owner in rewarding staff is, do you give rewards “just because,” or with an expectation that your generosity will be rewarded by good performance? Is it done in response to good performance? Is it done to encourage good performance? Can it do either? I’m not sure the answer is clear. But, I am sure we will continue to use rewards whenever it seems right.

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