What Is Behavioural Learning Theory? (3 Types with Examples)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published May 13, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Behavioural learning theory, or behaviourism, is a common concept that educators and business leaders may use to encourage positive behaviours in the workplace. Behavioural learning suggests individuals learn how to act through their interactions with others in their environment. Understanding how people learn can be helpful when interacting with customers and colleagues in the workplace, or for advancing your career. In this article, we explain behavioural learning theory, discuss three behaviour types, outline how they work, and provide tips on how to use them in the workplace.

What is behavioural learning theory?

Behavioural learning theory suggests you learn how to act and develop common behaviour patterns through your daily encounters with people or events. Psychologists describe learning as a mostly permanent change in behaviour that results from our experiences. Research shows learning results from the repeated learned behaviours that can influence our actions rather than inherited or innate aspects of our genetic makeup.

Understanding how people learn can help empower and enable you to create more meaningful connections and experiences in your everyday interactions with friends and family. In the workplace, behavioural learning can often benefit the interactions you may have with colleagues and customers and help you progress in your job. By learning how other people may act in certain situations, you can often predict and even avoid negative outcomes. This can be a valuable tool throughout your career.

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3 types of behavioural learning

Theorists typically describe learning as a relatively permanent change in behaviour resulting from our individual experiences. This concept of behaviourism encapsulates three principal learning types, which behavioural psychologists describe as classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning. Several specific learning methods differentiate these three behaviour modification techniques, which include:

Classical conditioning

Classical conditioning, or respondent conditioning, is most often associated with Pavlov's dogs, an experiment named after Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov wanted to test his theory that dogs may salivate at the sight or smell of food. After his assistant repeatedly brought food to the dogs, Pavlov noticed they began salivating when hearing his assistant's footsteps. Pavlov then introduced different foods and non-edible items to test this reaction and measured their saliva response. His study established salivating was an unconditioned response that automatically occurred in reaction to specific unconditioned stimuli, such as any object or event related to food.

After noticing the dogs salivated even before he introduced the food, Pavlov believed he might condition the dogs to salivate if he presented them with a conditioned stimulus, like the sound of a bell. It worked, and Pavlov's accidental discovery led to classical conditioning theory, which states people and some animals learn by association. An example in the workplace can be rewarding bonuses for reaching certain goals or other pre-set expectations.

Operant conditioning

Operant conditioning, or instrumental conditioning, relies on reinforcement or punishment to increase or decrease behaviours. Developed by psychologist B. F. Skinner, this learning process suggests people become conditioned because of their deliberate actions. As a result, Skinner determined they might also learn to change behaviours based on this same premise.

The timing and frequency of reinforcement are significant factors in this type of learning. For example, continuous reinforcement ensures someone receives reinforcement each time they act in a certain way. In contrast, intermittent reinforcement only reinforces behaviours sometimes, but it still encourages these behaviours because the person knows they can eventually receive reinforcement. Operant conditioning is further separated into four types of reinforcement, which include:

  • Positive reinforcement. This type of reinforcement provides a reward for positive behaviours. For example, a sales associate receives a bonus for exceeding their sales goals, which can encourage similar future behaviour, as they might hope to receive further bonuses.

  • Negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement encourages specific behaviours by eliminating unpleasant consequences. For instance, an employer may require employees to work weekends if they don't complete weekly goals, which may encourage them to finish work sooner.

  • Punishment reinforcement. Punishment occurs when someone removes something of value in response to negative behaviour. For example, an employer might reduce an employee's hours because of consistently poor work, which may motivate them to improve the quality of their work to increase their pay.

  • Extinction reinforcement. Extinction is a neutral response intended to eliminate a learned behaviour. For example, an employer may deny overtime pay to discourage employees who try to work weekends to receive extra pay.

Observational learning

As the name suggests, this type of learning occurs through observing and imitating others. When people watch how other individuals behave, they often retain this information and later repeat similar behaviours. Observational learning, or shaping and modelling, most often occurs during childhood. This type of learning can be an important part of socialization when children learn how to behave and react to others. Children typically learn how to act by watching how their parents or other significant people in their lives interact with others.

Accredited to psychologist Albert Bandura, observational learning suggests social imitation typically begins around age two. Bandura showed children are more inclined to mimic others' behaviour when they see there are no consequences for the action or the behaviour results in a reward. In contrast, when children see punishment because of specific behaviour, they are less likely to imitate that behaviour. In the workplace, observational learning can occur when an employee observes how a manager responds to certain behaviours of other employees and then makes behaviour-based decisions because of those positive or negative outcomes.

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Strategies for using behavioural learning in the workplace

Behavioural learning, often referred to as social learning in the workplace, can be an excellent tool for leaders in HR, training and career development, sales, management, or other key areas to improve an employee's skills, increase the prevalence of desired behaviours, and discourage unwanted actions. Social learning suggests that an effective strategy to achieve these objectives includes providing opportunities to observe instances in which managers reward employees for desired workplace behaviours, and discipline inappropriate behaviours.

When applying social learning to encourage employee behaviours to align with a company's culture, policies, and procedures, for instance, it can be important for managers to understand the potential implications. For example, using positive reinforcement can encourage people to alter their behaviour to achieve desired outcomes. Using negative reinforcements can have the opposite effect on what company leaders intend to encourage. Sometimes, negative reinforcers can create unintentional, potential conflicts and discontentment within the workforce. Some examples of ways to incorporate positive behavioural learning techniques in the workplace can include:

  • Positive social learning for training. When training or implementing new programs, trainers can use concepts like engaging videos that show the desired behaviours in a fun way.

  • Anecdotal stories to encourage positive behaviour outcomes. Sometimes, people respond better when they can relate to how others have successfully implemented new behaviours and hear resulting positive reinforcements.

  • Role-playing to teach desired behaviours. Play-acting can allow people to experience different sides of situations. It can encourage positive behaviours, show alternative consequences of negative behaviours, and provide opportunities for people to show empathy for colleagues in potential real-life situations.

  • Guest lecturers or industry leaders to encourage new behaviours. Research suggests social learning can be more effective when people respect their trainers. This technique can encourage employees to emulate similar positive behaviours of people they admire.

  • Consistent approaches and reinforcements. Consistent expectations for all employee levels can be important to build trust within the workforce. Trust encourages people to make better behaviour decisions, especially when employees see their leaders as role models.

  • Repetition to reinforce behaviours. Repetition can help to reinforce desired behaviours. Managers can use monthly training sessions, or self-guided exercises employees can complete for positive rewards, as possible good options.

  • Regular reviews or assessments of employee performance. Reviewing performance and learning outcomes can be an important tool to help people assess their progress.

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3 tips for creating effective learning models

Managers may be more effective when implementing behaviour modification techniques when they consider the type of reinforcement and the specific learning approaches of their employees. As people can respond to learning techniques differently, managers may consider providing alternate reinforcements for individual employees. Some considerations for the most effective employee-manager relationship when implementing new strategies may include:

1. The satisfaction level of individual employees

Effective reinforcement often relies on how meaningful a specific reward is for someone. For instance, one person may value time off over more pay, or verbal praise over a standard email acknowledging their accomplishments. Understanding what motivates each person can help increase overall behaviour changes within the company.

2. The timing of the reinforcement

If there are sizeable gaps between the positive behaviour and the reward, it may diminish the effectiveness of reinforcement. The timing of reinforcement may even discourage future or continued behaviour changes. The frequency of the reward can also affect an employee's motivation to continue making the desired behaviour changes. The most effective reinforcements can occur when people can rely on the rewards happening quickly and consistently.

3. The size of the reward

Rewards are often more effective when they are proportional to behavioural changes. For example, if management encourages an employee to work overtime to finish projects, a verbal acknowledgment may be less effective than a bonus or other physical rewards. Promotions for excellent work may also be excellent rewards with higher effectiveness for some individuals.

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