How We Accidentally Reward the Wrong Behaviors

How We Accidentally Reward the Wrong Behaviors

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People do what seems to work, even when it’s not the right thing.

B. F. Skinner, the famous behavioral psychologist, ran a number of experiments on pigeons. In one experiment, he trained a pigeon to play checkers, not that the bird had any clue what it was doing. It just learned to respond correctly to the right setup. A particularly interesting experiment involved putting pigeons in a box with a button that they could push for food pellets. However, the button didn’t actually do anything; rather, the apparatus would deliver a food pellet at random intervals. It didn’t really matter what the pigeon was doing.

What did the pigeons learn from this?

They learned to repeat whatever they were doing when the food pellet first showed up. Flapping wings, swinging beaks, it didn’t matter, they’d do it. Eventually, of course, they would get another food pellet, and that convinced them it was working. In a sense, they became superstitious. Of more interest, however, is that the pigeons became more and more devoted to whatever behavior they thought was being rewarded.

This effect is even stronger when the behavior really is being rewarded. It can also happen very quickly.

A couple years ago, I was invited to participate in a leadership training exercise at a local university. When I arrived, I was given the role of a senior engineer who was extremely unhappy with recent changes in how his division was being managed. I was told that I had raised the issues multiple times and been ignored and now I was mad. Okay, I could play that.

I sat down in front of the first student playing the role of the manager and launched into my tirade (pointing to random images on my iPad for emphasis). The “manager” responded by acknowledging everything I was saying and giving me everything I wanted. This was very encouraging, we played out the scenario, and I moved on to the next group. The second time, without thinking about it, I was even more intense, with bigger hand gestures. It worked again. To make a long story short, by the fourth, and last time I did it, I was really into my character, and it worked every time. What I didn’t realize until later was that my performance had become stronger and more intense each time I did it.

Also read: 3 Ways to Maximize Employee Engagement

Now, fortunately, this was a training exercise. We had a debriefing afterward and I was able to point out the pigeons in the room: obviously, I was one. The other pigeons were the people playing managers. Reinforcing behavior doesn’t go just one way: we each played off one another and we each made the other’s behavior stronger. Given enough time, each of these managers would “learn” to just give in quickly to shut up the angry scientists reporting to them, and it’s not because everyone involved was a bunch of bird brains. Rather, each party learns what works and then repeats it in the future. Given enough time, you’d have a lot of people yelling and a lot of people just doing whatever it took to get them to be quiet. This may work well in the short-term but has a rather poor long-term prognosis.

In a typical workplace, it is very easy for everyone to become a pigeon. All too often, we reward the wrong behaviors and encourage in the short term the exact opposite of what we want in the long term. If we want to avoid that, we need to stop periodically and debrief or get an outside perspective on our actions. Otherwise, the behaviors become automatic and unthinking. Eventually, that’s just how things get done, people are unhappy, and no one really knows why. Just like the superstitious and checkers-playing pigeons.

Don’t be a pigeon.

Stephen Balzac
About the Author
Stephen Balzac

Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author, and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. Steve is the author of “The McGraw-Hill 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development,” and “Organizational Psychology for Managers.” He is also a contributing author to volume one of “Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play.” For more information, or to sign up for Steve’s monthly newsletter, visit You can also contact Steve at 978-298-5189 or [email protected].

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