How Do You Make Companies “Good”? Spank Them Less!

I was a little troublemaker in my more youthful days, and while I will spare the details here, suffice it to say that I have been on the receiving end of some good old fashion punishments (some corporal, some less biblical). As a result, from a relatively young age, I intuitively understood the concept of punishment as a mechanism to deter bad behavior. Psychologist B.F. Skinner refers to this as “operant conditioning”.[1] Operant conditioning – very generally speaking – is a method of behavior modification where good behavior is rewarded with positive reinforcements and bad behavior is punished through negative reinforcements.

In a way, this system of “operant conditioning” is the way we have been approaching behavior modification of companies that exploit their laborers or employ sweatshops: When they are caught, they are punished with fines, have their business licenses revoked, and/or in particularly egregious cases, they are criminally prosecuted (examples of negative reinforcement). For those businesses with a record of being socially and environmentally responsible above others, we give them awards and place them high atop rankings of “good” companies (examples of positive reinforcement).

il_570xN.465952823_652aWhile this approach to behavior modification has generally been accepted as the “truth” or “best practice” for decades, that is not to say that Skinner’s operant conditioning has been without its critics. Recently, for example, operant conditioning has come under further scrutiny by another psychologist, Ross Greene, who specializes in a different kind of behavior modification called the “Collaborative and Proactive Solutions” (CPS) method.[2] Greene, who specializes in children that display emotional or behavioral issues at school, firmly believes that rather than focusing on the “appropriate” punishment to modify the problem-student’s behavior (i.e. spank them, suspend them, etc.), educators ought to focus more on why the student exhibits the problem behavior in the first place. In other words, rather than punishing the student for his misbehavior, educators ought to focus on why the student is behaving in that particular manner and attempt to resolve the underlying problem by talking to him and working out the issue together.

Followers of Greene’s approach swear by it and there is plenty of scientific evidence to back the CPS method.[3] What is more convincing, however, is the fact that his method seems to be working not just in schools, but in correctional facilities and various other institutions as well, where traditionally, Skinner’s book on operant conditioning was essentially the “how to” guide on behavior modification. Institutions that have switched from Skinner’s method to Greene’s CPS method attest to the remarkable success of CPS.[4] If we were to take their success stories at face value – just for the sake of argument – the relevant question thus becomes the following: Should we apply the CPS method for dealing with bad companies as well?

How different is dealing with a student that throws a rock at another student (something that I crossed off my checklist back in kindergarten) from dealing with bad companies that exploit their workers? Well, surely there are number of differences, but more importantly, in implementing the Greene method, many institutions will likely run into two inevitable obstacles: 1) the lack of funding and 2) the lack of will power for educators/regulators to try something different. Schools are often underfunded and teachers are often overburdened as is. Regulators similarly lack the necessary funding, manpower, time, etc. to even detect companies breaking labor laws, never mind helping them improve their labor practices by taking them by their metaphorical hand.

The Skinner method, without question, is easier to implement as it takes less effort and care. Sometimes, it is easier to just punish the bad behavior without taking the time to really understand the root of the problem. But spanking the student/company so hard in the hopes that they will never dare to do it again has proven to be a less effective way of behavior modification than we once thought. (Not to mention that it is downright lazy). In support of Green’s methods, just because it may seem difficult to implement or come off as “soft” in the context of dealing with companies breaking labor laws, that does not mean that the method won’t work. As Greene notes, “if we keep doing what isn’t working for those kids, we lose them.”[5] If we keep punishing the businesses the same way as we’ve always done, not only will things not change, but there is a serious risk that we are exacerbating the problem.

Maybe this whole idea is just preposterous and LOL stupid, but this idea is gaining some traction even amongst the legal academics. Salo Coslovsky of NYU, for example, argues that in various circumstances, regulators and inspectors acting more as consultants rather than cops can lead to a significant improvement in the treatment of workers in sectors plagued by labor exploitation.[6] So yes, this may be a far-fetched idea, but there are signs that it could work. If only we had the funding and the will power…

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[1]  See generally, J.G. Holland & B.F. Skinner, The Analysis of Behavior: A Program for Self-Instruction, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961).

[2]  See generally, R.W. Greene, Lost at School: Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them, (New York: Scribner, 2014).

[3]  Majority of the studies that support the CPS method come from the field of behavioral psychology and the importance of intrinsic motivation vis-a-vis extrinsic motivation. Whereas the Skinner method focuses on the latter, Greene’s CPS method focuses on the former and numerous studies have shown that intrinsic motivation is the better catalyst for behavior modification than extrinsic motivation. See e.g. D.H. Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009); E.L. Deci & R.M. Ryan, “Self-Determination Theory and Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being”, American Psychologist 55 (2000); C.P. Niemiec, R.M. Ryan & E.L. Deci, “The Path Taken: Consequences of Attaining Intrinsic and Extrinsic Aspirations”, Journal of Research in Personality 43 (2009): 291-306. 

[4]  K. Reynolds Lewis, “What If Everything You Knew About Disciplining Kids Was Wrong?”, Mother Jones, (July/August 2015). Available at: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/05/ schools-behavior-discipline-collaborative-proactive-solutions-ross-greene (last accessed 23 July 2015) (reporting about how correctional institutions such as Long Creek Youth Development Center and Mountain View in the state of Maine adopted Greene’s method and dropped their recidivism rates significantly).

[5]  Ibid.

[6]  S.V. Coslovsky, “Social Problem-Solving in the Brazilian Ministerio Publico: The Organizational Basis of Regulatory Responsiveness,” Regulation & Governance 5(1) (2011): 70-89; see also, S.V. Coslovsky & R. Locke, “Parallel Paths to Enforcement: Private Compliance, Public Regulation, and Labor Standards in the Brazilian Sugar Sector,” Politics & Society 41(4) (2013): 497-526.

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