The Principles and Theories of Self-Determination and Operant Conditioning

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In this article, the principles of operant conditioning and self-determination theories are summarized. After that, a case study of how these two theories can be applied is analyzed, which demonstrates its practicability and usability. Last, I discuss further applications of the principles in aspect of organizational management and marketing with examples. First of all, Operant conditioning is a behavioral theory created by psychologist B.F.Skinner. This theory suggests a behavior modification process through rewards or punishments (Mcleod, 2019). Specifically, it is based on the premise that a behavior is likely to increase if it receives pleasant consequence (e.g. rewards); and is likely to decrease if it receives unpleasant consequence (e.g. punishments). After operant conditioning, an individual learns an association between a particular behavior and a consequence, and his/her behavior is either strengthened or weakened (Praveen, 2017). Furthermore, operant conditioning consists of two major components – reinforcement and punishment, which corresponds to the pleasant consequence and unpleasant consequence accordingly (Fig,1).

Next, Self-determination is a human motivation theory (SDT) (Schulte, 2018). The theory proposes two main types of motivation – intrinsic and extrinsic, which drive a person to behave in certain ways. Extrinsic motivation (i.e., controlled motivation) comes from external factors and leads to external outcomes, such as awards and praise; whilst intrinsic motivation (i.e., autonomous motivation) comes from internal elements, such as a person’s interests and core values. Moreover, SDT identifies three basic psychological needs that underlie intrinsic motivation, which are autonomy, competence and relatedness (Fig.1). Nevertheless, to identify motivations in a more diversified context, we should consider the self-determination continuum (Fig.2). This model further discriminate different levels of motivation based on a continuum ranging from “non-self-determined” to “self-determined.” Notably, it is suggested that success is more likely when the goals are intrinsic and are able to satisfy basic needs (Ackerman, 2019).

After introducing the principles, I would analyze the campaign named “Square Mile Challenge” and demonstrate the role of these principles in this campaign. To begin with, Square Mile Challenge is a London-based project held in 2017, with the purpose of improving disposable coffee cup recycling awareness in the UK – provided the fact that the UK throws away 3 billion coffee cups a year with less than 4% of those recycled (Smithers, 2017). Specifically, the aim of this project is to collect half a million coffee cups in one month from 3rd April, which are then recycled to make a range of new items from pencils to park benches (Issuu, 2017). To boost awareness and participation, the Square Mile team collaborated with a coalition of organizations and placed 7 coffee cup-shaped yellow bins on the streets in central London. Furthermore, it set 131 recycling points across the Square Mile including plenty of major coffee retailers (Fig.4). At last, the campaign successfully achieved its goal in merely 3 weeks (, 2019).

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In order to complete the big goal in this campaign, a considerable amount of organizations and individuals participated, making either large or small contributions. Specifically, organizations signed up to offer the recycling bin in their retail stores and individuals cooperated by throwing the coffee-cup into specified bins. As a result, the campaign reached its goal, which can be regarded as the awards to them. Also, the experiences of enjoyment entailed in the activity supply the rewards as well (high correlation with intrinsic motivation mentioned in the next paragraph). According to the Operant Conditioning, both organizations and people that received awards will thus strengthen their behavior afterward (i.e. facilitating cup recycling). As for proof, at the time that the campaign began phase two of the challenge with 5 million coffee-cup collection & recycling as the goal, 21 of 36 businesses who signed up for the previous phase were continuing (Issuu, 2017). On the other hand, the phase two of the campaign could further reinforce the behavior at the same time.

With regard to self-determination theory, both intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation took effect in this case and are highly influential determinants of behaviors. For companies, the focus would be more on extrinsic motivation due to the fact that the first 30 businesses that sign up to Square Mile challenge could receive one year’s free collection service membership. Plus, all other businesses getting involved would be able to access discounted rates for collections (Barley, 2019). These are all external factors meanwhile providing sufficient reasons for company to be active in this campaign. Turning to the individual, on the contrary, internal factors weighed more under this situation since there are no prominent external goods for them to join in the activity. Therefore, their probable motivation would be the values in their hearts. For example, their sense of responsibility towards environmental protection. In the meantime, the Square Mile team tried to attract people and invoke their sense of responsibility by focusing on different ways to increase exposure and repeat the key message, both online and offline (Fig.3). This is proved to be successful, demonstrated by people’s high degree of cooperation, and according to Deci & Ryan, people will get more satisfied and self-actualized when behaving with high autonomy rather than conforming to external regulation (Deci & Ryan, 2010). In summary, all of these motivations contribute to desired behaviors and lead to the success of this campaign.

Aside from the case above, Operant conditioning and self-determination theory can be applied in a more practical way across domains. Hereby I extend their applications into workplace and marketing promotion respectively. As mentioned in the last paragraph, self-autonomy largely accounts for the success of Square Mile Challenge campaign. Specifically, the citizens behave largely due to their intrinsic motivation aroused, which could be a sense of social morality. This might work even better than people being motivated by external reasons, such as the governments regulating people to behave in that way. In case that applying this result to the workplace, employers could seek a balance between intrinsic and extrinsic incentives by setting a robust framework to make workers more engaged – it’s suggested that “both employee’s performance and their well-being are affected by the type of motivation for job activities (Edward L. Deci et al., 2019).” For instance, while manager should set bonus or grading system to enhance the extrinsic motivation of staff, support, encouragement should be offered to boost intrinsic motivation, infusing the workers with happiness, confidence and autonomy in setting and fulfilling their job goals. Besides, operant conditioning could also be adopted in product marketing and consumer behavior prediction. While promoting a product, marketers should not only link purchase motivation to extrinsic benefits such as price, quality, packaging, etc.; but also put a focus on intrinsic factors, especially taking account in people’s three basic needs and aimed at creating emotional connection, as expounded in the graph below (Fig.6) (Gul Gilal et al., 2019).

Turning to operant conditioning, it actually takes place every day in both natural and structured settings. While in the workplace, there are a host of stimuli to cause workers to behave in certain ways with certain consequences (Fig.7). For example, managers may use reinforcement to increase employee’s working performance by making their behavior desirable. This would include monetary benefits such as bonus, promotions, verbal praise, promotions, etc. As a result, people who receive these awards after they achieve desired work outcome will likely to be highly motivated and keep working hard afterward with expectation that more rewards will be forthcoming (Kraft, 2019; Lonczak, 2019). On the contrary, punishments such as wage deduction and verbal scolding will be exerted on employees who behave undesirably in order to stop that. Also, operant conditioning is widely employed by marketers - they try to induce consumer’s behavior using rewards or punishment. For example, in terms of positive conditioning, companies often reward consumers after they purchase the product, such as coupons, discounts, free gifts, trial samples, customer service, etc. These would reinforce their behavior and make them more likely to continue purchasing the products. By contrary, sales who call customers at inconvenient times or use pressure to convince them to buy the products, plus exaggerating the possible negative results if not accepting their advice could act as negative reinforcement (Magloff, 2017).

Overall, despite some ethical as well as practical issues, operant conditioning and self-determination theory have broad implications for business. They are proved to be an effective tool for business to apply strictly in workplaces to modify work behavior and increase motivation and productivity, as well as for marketers to utilize in their marketing strategies (Lumen, 2019). As Aubrey Daniels said, “Positive reinforcement is the most powerful leadership tool (Daniels, 1982).”

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