Don’t Be Pavlov’s Dog

Why do we do what we do?  Truthfully, in many cases we can’t explain why we do what we do.  Our behaviors are often learned, conditioned, and unconscious.  We would like to believe we are more sophisticated than Pavlov’s dogs, but if we really examine our behaviors we might find a total lack of critical thinking behind our actions.

I once heard about a shock experiment on a group of monkeys that made me think about our obedience to authority and classical conditioning.  Several monkeys were held together in a cage, and at the end of the cage there was a ladder with a treat at the top.  The floor was also rigged with wires so the experimenters could deliver an electric shock to the monkeys standing on the floor of the cage.  Each time one monkey would climb the ladder, the rest of the monkeys standing on the floor would receive a shock.

After a few shocks, the monkeys learned that the shocks were only delivered when a fellow monkey started climbing the ladder. Eventually, when one monkey would start to climb the ladder to reach the treat, the other monkeys would attack him to keep him off of the ladder so they would avoid a shock.  They learned that one monkey climbing a ladder = the others receiving a shock, and administered a punishment to any monkey brave enough to try to climb for the treat.  After some time, the shock wiring was removed from the cage, yet the monkeys continued their behavior of beating up any monkey climbing the ladder. Even without the punishment the monkeys continued the punishment behavior.

One at a time, the experimenters then began taking monkeys out of the cage and replacing them with new ones.  When the new monkeys would unknowingly try to climb the ladder they would instantly be attacked by the old monkeys who still remembered the relationship between the ladder and shock punishment.

Over time, all of the original monkeys were gone and only “new” monkeys remained in the cage.  These monkeys had never even experienced a shock for themselves, yet they continued the learned behavior of punishing any monkey that climbed the ladder.

So many of our behaviors in the workplace are based on conditioning from others.  We assimilate to our culture, respect the organization’s hierarchy, and often give up on ideas when told “we’ve done that before.”

We must constantly stop and ask ourselves- Why?  Why do we do what we do?  When we accept that “this is the way things are done” we are not critically thinking.  We are not questioning assumptions and examining arguments about the benefit of multiple alternatives.

Have you seen examples of behavioral conditioning in your workplace?


The Office – Pavlov’s dog from Rauno Villberg on Vimeo.

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Editor’s Note: Breanne Harris is the Solutions Architect for Pearson TalentLens.  She works with customers to design selection and development plans that incorporate critical thinking assessments and training.  She has a Master’s degree in Organizational Psychology and has experience in recruiting, training, and HR consulting.  She is the chief blogger for Critical Thinkers and occasionally posts at ThinkWatson.  Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter for more of her thoughts.

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