Technology’s Positive and Negative Effects on Behavior

Most would not argue against the idea that the world is accelerating. Many would even agree that the cause of such acceleration is technology. It is true – technology increases the rate of reinforcement more than anything else we can compare it to. Any time you do something that is easier and more positive, people will adopt it. But the reality is that technology can be a tale of two heads; one where positive reinforcement increases behavior and the other where the lack of reinforcement decreases desired behavior.

Let’s look first at technology as it relates to smartphones. New social technologies are being introduced exponentially that promise organizations, managers and employees to be better, faster and smarter. Technology such as Yammer, for instance, was developed to function as a company’s very own social networking platform with an app that gives employees real-time access to what’s happening even when they are out of the office. Through this program, co-workers can collaborate and share ideas across an infinite number of people and locations instantaneously. While you can argue there are far more benefits to this type of collaboration, and one would presume it to be highly effective, there is still the potential for it to be negatively reinforcing for some as well.

Those who design these programs must take into consideration the behavior that they desire to get more of. For example, let’s say a team is working on how to more effectively resolve a client problem and one team member posts a suggested resolution. The natural reaction in social communication is to quickly give your “two-cents.” Within seconds you can have a multitude of recommendations and no solution. The technology alone cannot solve the client problem, but it can facilitate quick responses and suggestions for resolutions. Another point of potential concern is to ensure that all team members are comfortable sharing recommendations across the group. You may have a team member who is more methodical and takes time to consider many options before providing input. For this person, it may be too late. The team may have agreed to a solution quickly and without regard to an idea that may in fact prove to be the right solution.

Organizations that look to these new technologies must ensure that the reinforcement it provides to those using it generates the positive, desired behavior that they seek.

On the flip side, consider what happens in automation, in manufacturing for example. Is it possible to build a machine that no one can manage? The possibility is intriguing and no doubt a theme for a future movie where robots are created that can operate independent of the creator. We are getting closer to that than many realize.

Already we have computer systems that make decisions that employees don’t understand, and efforts by them to intervene have been tragic. The Air France Flight 447 that crashed in the Atlantic Ocean killing 228 people was in an Airbus plane that had the most technologically sophisticated cockpit instrumentation available at the time (2009). The headline read, “Hi-tech controls partly blamed for Airbus crash.” A final report issued in July 2012 concluded that the accident was, in part, caused by “pilot misunderstanding of the situation leading to a lack of control inputs that would have made it possible to recover from it.” While pilot training is certainly implicated in this tragedy, the understanding of the effects of computerization on the behavior of operators is not well understood. Generally speaking, when any job is computerized, it reduces the reinforcement for the operators and changes the behaviors that are important to the business outcome. One of the problems with automation is that any time you bring technology into an environment; you reduce the reinforcement for people.

Computerization of any job usually requires the behavior of monitoring, which is a dramatic change from the usual behaviors, e.g., assembling parts, placing cartons on a rack, typing an email, completing paperwork, etc. In monitoring, the performer is asked to check the equipment periodically and to monitor dials and gauges to make sure the numbers are in the desirable range. The problem is that “looking” is difficult to manage. How do you know that the person actually saw what he or she was supposed to be looking for, or that he or she even did the checking? With the high reliability of new computerized processes, a problem occurs very infrequently; therefore, the behavior of doing something other than checking, like sleeping, talking on a cellphone or playing a computer game is high and will usually have no effect on output. However, failure to check over long periods is likely to have disastrous effects in safety, production, quality and cost.

Where the old non-computerized processes put the performer in contact with the natural contingencies of reinforcement (the easy-to-see accomplishments provide some reinforcement for the work behaviors), the computerized equipment does not. What are the natural reinforcers for looking at the same numbers for hours on end? There are none. The technical term for that state is extinction. Eventually, the person quits looking until something very unusual happens which is often too late to avoid an accident, breakdown or failure of the equipment. The word “complacency” is creeping into articles about the cause of accidents. Complacency is the result of lack of reinforcement for attentiveness to job-related variables.

The behavior of air traffic controllers in the Washington, D.C., area recently received national publicity, but inattentiveness and failure to respond to danger signals in the workplace is on the rise in many work environments. It is not the performer who is at fault but the lack of contingencies of reinforcement in the job. (For more, read Eliminating the Rare Error: Even Sleeping Air Traffic Controllers.)

I think it is imperative that software designers know the science of behavior so they can marry technology and behavior in a way that provides the necessary consequences of the right kind, the right time and the right frequency to maintain appropriate work behavior. Although it has been done to video games, it has not made it into much of the workplace where the need is great.