Learning and Causes of Individual Behavior

Cite this article as:"Learning and Causes of Individual Behavior," in The Business Professor, updated July 10, 2020, last accessed October 22, 2020, https://thebusinessprofessor.com/lesson/learning-and-individual-behavior/.

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Understanding Behavior and How it Evolves

Behavior can be defined as the actions of a person based on specific stimuli.
This begs the question, from where does behavior come?

There are three primary theories concerning where or how individual’s learn a particular behavior.  Learning implies that individuals behave a certain way based upon the effect of experience or exposure.  Human learning theories can be grouped into three categories:

  • Conditional Learning (Operant Conditioning)
  • Cognitive Learning
  • Social Learning

Conditional Learning Theory (Operant Conditioning)

Operant Conditioning is a learning theory stating that behavior is a function of its consequences. People behave in a certain way based upon their expectations – to get the desired result. In this way, behavior is learned – rather than innate.

Because individuals behave based upon expectations, behavior is affected by whether there is some form of reinforcement in place. The primary types of reinforcement include:

  • Positive reinforcement – When a behavior is followed by something pleasant
  • Negative reinforcement – Rewarding a response by eliminating or withdrawing something unpleasant
  • Punishment – Punishment penalizes undesirable behavior and will eliminate it.
  • Extinction – Extinction means eliminating any reinforcement that’s maintaining a behavior.

For example, individuals seek the outcome of positive reinforcement (getting something they like) or negative reinforcement (removing a negative condition) or to avoid punishment. So, reinforcement increases the likelihood of a behavior and increases the likelihood of repeated behavior based upon the expected result.

Cognitive Learning Theory

Cognitive Learning Theory, originally proposed by Edward Tolman, said that people respond to stimuli and act based upon many cognitive influences – thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, feelings, and goals. Also, individuals learn from a situation based upon the meaning assigned (through cognition) to the external stimuli. Cognition includes the mental processing of information, thoughts, ideas, emotions, combined knowledge, and self-awareness.

In contrast to conditional learning theory, cognitive learning theory does not depend upon reinforcement for an individual to learn a behavior. Rather, cognition is necessary for learning while reinforcement is not. Individuals process external stimuli and subsequently develop a mental map (cognitive map) of what to expect from the situation.

The effect of this process is that individuals respond to stimuli in the environment based upon these mental maps that they develop. Note that the development and use of these maps are driven by the objective of achieving an individual’s goals.

Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory, originally proposed by Albert Bandura, says that individuals learn behavior by observing others. That is, an individual observes another individual’s attitude, behavior, and the response or outcome of that behavior. This observation allows an individual to understand what to expect from a given behavior in a defined situation or context.

Individuals then undertake a process known as “vicarious modeling”. Vicarious modeling is the learning that takes place when an individual copies or imitates the behaviors of someone they observe. The idea is that learning does result from simply from an observation of the results of and individual’s behavior in the context of an environmental stimulus. The learning takes place when an individual mimics that behavior and experiences the results of that behavior. As such, social observation shapes an individual’s behavior based upon mimicking the observed behavior and experiencing the expected and desired outcome.

Social learning theory integrates elements of cognitive theory and conditional theory. Individuals mentally process the cognitive influences present in a situation. They also recognize that a given behavior or course of action will lead to an observed result. As such, the desired result observed may reinforce the individual’s particular behavior in the future.

The extent to which observing another’s behavior influences our own behavior is determined by four processes:

  • Attentional processes – Individuals learn from models who are attractive, continuously available, have import, and are similar to them. They must by paying specific attention to their critical features.
  • Retention processes – The individual must be able to remember or recall the model’s behavior – even if the model is no longer is behavior.
  • Motor reproduction processes – The individual must copy or repeat the modeled behavior. This depends heavily upon the individual’s ability to model those behaviors. •
  • Reinforcement processes – This regards the extent to which reinforcers are present to incentivize the continued behavior.

Causes of Behavior

What is Attribution Theory?

Attribution theory concerns what individuals attribute as the cause of a particular behavior, occurrence, or outcome. Attribution theory is related closely to perception, as causal connections are formed based upon the perception of external information.
There are two types of attribution:

  • Dispositional attribution (internal cause) – Causation is based upon the internal characteristics of an individual. This allows us to predict an individual’s future behavior.
  • Situational attribution (external cause) – External situations that are outside of an individual’s control.

Jones & Davis Correspondent Inference Theory

This theory states that individuals are more likely to perceive information that they attribute to intentional behavior. The term correspondent inference to refer to an occasion when an observer infers that a person’s behavior matches or corresponds with their personality. This theory helped to understand the process of making an internal attribution. The conditions under which we make dispositional attributes to the behavior we perceive as intentional include:

  • Choice – Is an observed behavior freely chosen (due to internal factors)?
  • Accidental – Intentional Behavior: Accidental behavior relates o external cause, while intentional behavior is associated with personality.
  • Social Desirability – Non-conforming or low socially desirably behaviors are generally considered dispositional.
  • Hedonistic Relevance – Is the actor’s behavior intended to harm or benefit others?
  • Personalism – Is the conduct intended to have an impact or others or is the impact incidental.

Kelley’s Covariation Model

Kelley’s covariation model attempts to address whether a particular action should be attributed to some characteristic (dispositional) of the person or the environment (situational). The term “covariation” means derived from multiple observations.
Three factors relate to our individual attributions:

  • Consensus – Is there commonly in how others behave?
  • Distinctiveness – Do people behave the same across distinct situations.
  • Consistency – Does this person behave this way on different occasions in the same situation?

When making attributions, we do not always look at the situation objectively. Our past experiences affect our attribution. We have a tendency to connect behavior with an outcome in two ways:

  • Multiple necessary causes – We identify the necessary conditions (multiple conditions), all of which must be in place for the outcome to arise.
  • Multiple sufficient causes – We identify various conditions, any of which must be in place for the outcome to arise.

Common Errors in Attribution

Attributing a cause to a particular behavior is highly susceptible to bias. Two common biases include:

  • Fundamental Attribution Error – The tendency to underestimate the influence of external factors and to overestimate the influence of internal or personal factors.
  • Self-serving bias – The tendency of individuals to attribute their successes to internal factors while blaming personal failures on external factors

Behavior and Organizational Effectiveness

There are numerous behaviors that relate directly to organizational effectiveness. Prominent among these are:

  • Job Performance – Individual performance against expectations or standards
  • Citizenship behaviors – Organizational citizenship behaviors (OCB) are those that are above and beyond the requirements of the job and are done to benefit the organization or others in the organization.
  • Absenteeism – Absenteeism is the failure to show up for work.
  • Turnover – Turnover is when an employee leaves a position and another employee must be brought in an trained to replace the departing individual.

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