HR BEHAVIORIST DREAM “Hi, you feel fine; how do I feel?”—Punchline to a behaviorist joke

Behaviorism, rising to prominence in the early 1900s through its popularization by John B. Watson, Harvard psychologist, building on the animal conditioning experiments of Ivan Pavlov and then later, by B.F. Skinner, also at Harvard, was supposed to make personnel management scientific.

No unprovable guesses about unobservable employee feelings, hunches about their motivation, speculations about their unconscious fears, needs, intentions or desires or any other “private” subjective experience; just raw observable, confirmable behavior and its correlations with other behaviors, including the behaviors of observers, trainers, management and coworkers, all shaped by “cues”, “rewards” and “punishments”.

Eliminating and Ignoring Everything Psychologically “Internal”

In its most extreme versions, behaviorism has been more than just a pragmatic observational methodology—so-called “methodological behaviorism”; it has also, in that extreme form, been an (ironically) unprovable metaphysical doctrine that denies even the existence of “inner” unobservable states, much less their influence, on top of denying their observability and relevance to anyone except those who claim to have them.

Perhaps the earliest exponent of this extreme, metaphysical view was Rene Descartes, the 17th-century “I think therefore I am” philosopher, who spurred and legitimized the brutal vivisection (unanesthetized dissection) of lab cats and other animals on the grounds that they were mere “automata” whose howls of torment merely simulated real experience of horror and suffering, like the popular animated garden animal clocks of his era.

In its methodological version, modern behaviorism urges an exclusive focus on visible, preferably measurable, predictable, definable and controllable behavior, much as natural scientists such as physicists do; as a metaphysical doctrine, it posits, as Descartes partially did, the non-existence of internal, private mental or sensory states as a prime rationale for the relevance and success of the methodology: If such states do not exist, why look for or care about them?

Translated into common sense HR management terms, behaviorism supports, where it is not equivalent to, the precept that all that matters is employee “performance” and observable behavioral results. Inner hidden hopes, aspirations, turmoil and conflicts, guiding visions, sensitivities, etc., don’t matter one iota, even if they do exist.

A joke I have related elsewhere captures the essence of behaviorism: “Two behaviorist psychologists meet on their neighborhood street. The first says to the other, ‘Hi, you feel fine; how do I feel?’”—where “feel X” is translated as “behave in ways, including neurological and hormonal, that we define as ‘feeling X’”.

The question becomes, “Can this methodology really work?” (setting aside the question or doubts about the extreme metaphysics that deny the existence of anything but bodies and their behavior—including physiological behavior, such as salivating, as defining characteristics of particular emotions or states of arousal).

Why It Won’t Work

The short answer: No. And this is a “no” with several with several skewering prongs. First, the rosy prediction that behavior and performance are completely plastic has not survived the evidence that we and other creatures are hardwired to behave in ways that are not readily influenced by conditioning, e.g., exploratory behavior without immediate reward.

Second, as I’ve argued in “When and Why Employees Should (Not) Be Paid in Advance” and in “Of Mice and Men“, man is the only animal that can be rewarded, e.g., paid, in advance. How do you explain that, if conscious awareness of the connection between a present reward and future work does not exist or is not causally relevant? (For a detailed source of quotes, claims and critiques of behaviorism, take a look at this.)

Despite claims that behaviorism relies entirely on observations of behavior and nothing else, the methodology and metaphysics have to lapse into dependency on some commonsense assumptions about people, if the behavior is going to be the least bit interpretable and comprehensible.

These assumptions are generally about black-box “drive states”, “states of arousal”, “tension reduction/increase” as quasi-private motives. Even habits are more than the sum of their behavioral and repeated manifestations, being characterized as invisible “dispositions” or “traits”.

What this means is that without some kind of contextualization—motivational, biological (e.g., “instincts”), cultural (e.g., the causal influence of cultural norms), social (e.g., peer-group pressures), professional (e.g.., job description or ethics), linguistic (e.g., language competencies), etc., behavior becomes an indecipherable mishmash of muscle twitches, uninterpreted vocalizations and blinks, observed secretions, seemingly random movements and actions and other events that are unanalyzed and unanalyzable in terms of their purposes, implications and probability of (non)recurrence.

In effect, pure behaviorism, without any contextualization (in terms of hidden influences), amounts to recording the wild gyrations of an experimental robot with no understanding of what those gyrations represent, if anything other than malfunctioning.

Thinking Outside and Inside the Black Box

But once the contextualization is recognized as necessary and therefore allowed, HR behaviorism becomes less behavioristic, in depending on assumptions about hidden, “black-box” or otherwise unobservable states that make the observed behaviors comprehensible and explicable.

For example, consider a pure HR behaviorist of the extreme sort, who thinks personnel management is a branch of physics: nothing but the observables and measureables, please. How can he create or grasp organizational “team spirit”, “loyalty”, “organizational pride” or even the love of his own wife?: “She loves my behavior!”?

Replacing inner feelings, hopes, fears and desires with black-box drives, habits and tension-reduction does not eliminate metaphysical assumptions about causative influences; it merely replaces them with less human-sounding underlying, invisible drivers of behavior.

So, if you are an HR manager who takes pride in being an “objective”, scientific, no-nonsense behaviorist with a sharp eye on the bottom line of employee performance, what is in your black box that could make you imagine you understand yourself, not to mention your employees and anyone’s dreams, including your own purely in terms of behavior outside that box?

My guess, is that to answer that, you’re going to have to think inside as well as outside that box.

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in Organizational Behavior]