Of Mice and Men

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—Running the maze of HR behavioral psychology

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”—Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, thesis 11

“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.”—John B. Watson,  an early HR psychologist, in Behaviorism, 1930


Strange as it may seem, and as will be explained below, what is one of the most widely used personnel management models and tools employed in HR departments has an embarrassing, if not fatal flaw.

That obvious defect is, on a daily basis, exposed by a common and commonsense business practice that many of those departments follow with the same personnel: payment in advance—the widely adopted practice of partial or full payment prior to performance.

To see how advance payment is incongruous with the HR personnel paradigm that authorizes it, it will be necessary to look at that paradigm’s history.

The HR behavioral management tool in question is the behaviorist SR (stimulus-response) model and its associated theories, principles and techniques. Incorporating the ideas of Pavlovian “classical conditioning”, Watsonian behaviorism and Skinnerian behavior modification—all of which employ “reward”, “positive and negative reinforcement”, “punishment”, “aversive conditioning” or variants thereof to shape behavior of everything smarter than a worm and as amenable as a drooling dog.

Soviet Philosophy 101

Karl Marx, icon of the Soviet revolution, famously said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it” The credo of these “behaviorists”— the Russian dog-trainer Ivan Pavlov, another hero of the former USSR; B.F. Skinner, the Harvard pigeon-meister who helped propel SR behaviorism into the cultural mainstream through his popular treatise Science and Human Behavior and his novel Walden II; John B. Watson and others, such as John Dollard and Neal Miller—seems to be a more specific version of Marx’s epigram: “Other psychologists have sought to interpret people; the point is to change them.”

Egalitarian Plasticity

Watson, Skinner and the Soviets believed in the infinite plasticity of man as a resource for creating a totally malleable future free of any invidious genetic, innate, or class-based shackles on human potential.

That is why Watson declared he could train anyone to be a thief, beggar, doctor or lawyer—in order to advance what appeared to be a noble egalitarian agenda. Coincidentally, it also happened to be an agenda into which the totally antithetical ideologies of democratic America and despotic commissar-rule USSR  (not to be confused with “U.S. -S.R. psychology) could be made to fit, like fellow travelers caught by the mythological roadside bandit Procrustes and thrown onto his one-size-fits-all bed for stretching or chopping, as he saw fit.

(Note: this is the mark of a very successful ideology—it provides an umbrella under which antagonists or opposites can huddle, e.g., early radical feminism, which welcomed and attracted some male-wary women who declared, “I am not a sex object!” as well as some male-hungry others who, in the spirit of equality, thought it would be great if the boys could be toys too.)

From a behaviorist perspective on “human resource management”, the role of applied psychology is to manipulate, guide and shape employee behavior through control of stimuli and responses by means of “reinforcement” or reward and punishment, not to understand anybody’s “mind”, “instincts”, “drives”, “unconscious wishes/desires/fears”, or the subjective “feelings”, “hopes”, “aspirations”, sentiments, existential dilemmas, longings or life scripts that most would regard as defining themselves.

As far as an SR psychologist is concerned all of those subjective components of a human being are either irrelevant or non-existent. In case you are unfamiliar with SR psychology/behaviorism the following classic story will instantly reveal its core: Two behaviorist psychologists who are friends pass in the street. The first says to the second, “Hi! You feel fine. How do I feel?” Behavior is all that exists.

Rehabilitating Hamlet

As for how a behaviorist-oriented HR department would deal with a Hamlet whose application for a managerial post is mysteriously prefaced with “To be, or not to be…that is the question”, the response to him would probably go something like this: “Hamlet 02634’s statistically rare verbal operant response ‘To be, or not to be’ has in all likelihood been reinforced by kudos from some kind of audience.

“To extinguish that specific aberrant response, we recommend reciprocal inhibition—that is, we advise that Hamlet 02634 be presented with discriminative stimuli and environmental designs that may elicit a verbal performance incompatible with his original unprofessional and disruptive remarks, e.g., ‘To order new business cards, or not order new business cards…’

“Upon his recitation of that alternate utterance, he should immediately be rewarded with smiles or any candy that his prior behavior suggests is a positive reinforcer for him. We are confident that repeated reinforcement of this new response will quickly lead to the total extinction of the statistically and professionally anomalous ‘To be, or not to be..’ and to a rehabilitation of his professional image in the presence of clients and associates.”

To see where this approach leads, read A Clockwork Orange or rent the movie version.

Your Blank Flight Recorder

To have one’s heart and soul treated as a black box that can and should be ignored in the interest of making HR management methodology “objective”, “operationalized” and “scientific” is, to many, a bad thing. What seems worse is how in some versions of SR behaviorism not only is the box to be ignored, it is also to be regarded as empty, i.e., Hamlet’s motivating inner feelings, inner musings, innermost angst simply do not exist, unless these concepts are poetic shorthand for his observable behavior.

If this approach strikes you as limited and limiting, welcome to a very large club. There is another story that, like the passing pair of psychologist joke, offers a glimpse of the deep limitations of the standard HR-SR approach.

Puppy Gestalts

A man has a puppy that is not house-broken. So when the dog sprinkles the carpeting, the man rolls up a newspaper, swats the dog and throws him outside. The owner continues this conditioning regime for some time. Months later, a friend passes him on the street during a walk with the dog and asks, “How is your toilet training technique working out?” The owner replies, “Great! Now, when he pees on the carpet, he rolls up a newspaper, hits himself and throws himself out.”

At the heart of this joke is the insight that the SR approach can overlook something crucial in the makeup of intelligent creatures–actually overlook two things: their capacity for interpretation and the existence of conditioning resistant/conditioning irrelevant instincts. In this last joke, the dog reveals an instinct that trumps conditioning by means of a clever interpretation of what is expected of it.

Mice running a maze may do so from a conditioning-irrelevant instinctive exploratory drive that requires no human-administered and regulated rewards to be reinforced—because it is “self-reinforcing behavior”. If the mouse is shocked for normal instinctive behavior, such as drinking water, it will develop an experimental neurosis and basically become an immobile basket case.

To overlook the internally hard-wired instincts and the fluid subjective interpretations and “gestalts” that motivate men and mice is to commit some serious methodological, metaphysical, moral and administrative mistakes.

The Oversight in HR-SR’s Oversight

Even within SR behaviorism’s own frame and terms of reference there is a glaring oversight that supports behaviorism’s crude reduction of the human experience to SR’s parody of a waltz: stimulus-response-reinforcement. The oversight, a kind of blindness to a distinguishing feature of human behavior and minds, is obvious, once identified.

It is this: We humans appear to be the only living things that can be rewarded/reinforced in advance of the behavior that earns us the reward. That’s because of the quirks of our capacity for foresight in the form of advance-payment contracts. This kind of “advance-reward” behavior is not allowed in the behaviorist paradigm. Skinner: “These two cases exhaust the possibilities: an organism is conditioned when [1] a reinforcer accompanies another stimulus, or [2] follows upon the organism’s own behavior.” (Italics mine, Science and Human Behavior, p.65.) Notice, there’s no room in this framework for advance operant reinforcement—“operant” meaning behavior that appears spontaneously and is then, subsequently, rewarded.

Give a seal a fish before it does its trick and see what happens. Nothing. Seals can grasp neither the concept of payment in advance for a job or of securing a loan at a bank—an upfront reward for the subsequent loan pay-down behavior, which is a complex “operant”, not a Pavlovian drool-type reflex.

The seal will eat the fish and maybe go to sleep or beg for more. The entire SR operant conditioning model is predicated on the idea that the performance always precedes the reward, much as hourly work always precedes the paycheck.

True, in “classical” conditioning of the kind Pavlov pioneered, an “unconditioned reinforcer”, e.g., food is presented before the dog or cat responds. But in those situations the food is not a reward. It’s bait to get the animal to associate food with a bell or light. The animal’s meowing, barking or drooling is merely a reflex response, not a higher-level readily shaped spontaneous response to be rewarded or punished. Moreover the bait merely accelerates the response time to the otherwise less interesting “conditioned reinforce”, e.g., a bell or a light. It shapes only the timing of the response, not its form.

This glaring omission of a fundamental pattern of human behavior is at best careless, at worst, motivated. The incentive to “overlook” advance-reward is that it spares behaviorists a major theoretical and operational embarrassment: Were advance-reward a recognized category of reinforcement, it would require acknowledging a distinctive human capacity for reflective planning and insight into a kind of cause-effect connection in which what is normally the effect (reinforcement) precedes the cause (the behavior that earns the reward).

Such cognitive complexity is not amenable to any simple SR dumb-beast model. It doesn’t fit into classical dog-drool conditioning, and it can’t be analyzed in terms of the advance-reward being a “discriminative stimulus”–a cue–to perform, like a dolphin trainer’s raised hand or whistle, which is followed by the trick and then the fish as reward/reinforcement.

Advance payment or loans from banks are not work or repayment cues. They are the rewards and reinforcers. To say that they are the “starting gun” and mere cues is as preposterous as maintaining that dolphins perform because they find whistles and hand gestures immensely satisfying.

Like all forms of insight, understanding advance-reward cannot easily be modeled in SR behaviorist terms, if at all. That’s why it is never mentioned or, as a minimum,  is a consequence of their silence on the subject.

An HR Blunder

Think about this very carefully: What is a leading—if not the leading—paradigm of human resource management and modern psychology (with all of the attendant talk of incentives, rewards, behavioral management, etc.) omits recognition, understanding and utilization of a uniquely human capacity: the capacity to be paid in advance and to borrow.

(It would be interesting to see how human lending translates into SR paradigms. I suspect the best approximation to a bank manager’s loan among lab mice is what they would call, if they could speak, “sharing”. )

In its zeal to reduce men to mice and mice to machines, extreme SR behaviorism slammed mice and men onto a Procrustean bed and chopped off the human capacity for advance reinforcement, gestalt perception, other forms of interpretation, and all our basic instincts and compelling drives. To Procrustes credit, it can be said that at least he occasionally stretched, rather than only diminished humans.

As for the mice, whether or not they too are capable of reinforcement in advance is not clear. Try giving a pet mouse some cheese. If it then rolls up into a soft sleepy ball, you will be free to speculate that it has interpreted the cheese as payment in advance for a sleep show….

…that would perfectly mimic the response pattern of some Watson-trained lawyers on retainer.

Read more in Personnel Management

Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).