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Studies on Using the Premack Principle to Reinforce Work with Work

A maintenance strategy to reinforce behavioral change is to rearrange existing contingencies so that reinforcers already present in the environment are made contingent on the desired behavior.

Incentive programs illustrate the effectiveness of one of the simplest intervention strategies-the addition of a reinforcer.

The feasibility of this strategy for first-line managers concerned with individual employee behavior problems is limited: Most managers do not have discretionary funds from which to draw incentives, and there are potential problems in placing one or two employees in a division or office on an incentive system.

Rearrangement of existing contingencies is a simple reinforcement strategy that bypasses these problems. Here, there is no addition; rather, the sequence of events is rearranged so that an existing reinforcer follows the behavior to be increased. One often overlooked reinforcer is favored work-tasks that employees tend to do first can be used to reinforce those they tend to leave until last. Salespeople, for example, often call their old clients first and put off calling new clients. This can be reinforcing, because old clients are probably easier to sell to. Consequently, it is often difficult for the sales manager to motivate salespeople to call on new clients.

Ted Gupton and Michael LeBow demonstrated how to use the Premack principle to solve this problem. Two part-time telephone solicitors were employed to sell new appliance service contracts (warranties) and to renew old ones. During the first ten sessions the salesmen could phone warranty and renewal customers in any order they chose. As expected from previous experience, the percentage of calls which resulted in sales was higher for renewing old contracts (31 and 27 percent, respectively) than it was for selling new contracts (13 and 10 percent, respectively). In other words, renewing previously existing contracts that were about to expire was a high-probability behavior, whereas selling new contracts to new customers was a low-probability behavior,

During the next ten sessions, the salesmen's opportunity to make five renewal calls was made contingent on their selling a new contract, not just calling a new customer. Each salesman was instructed that after he made one warranty sale he could make five renewal calls (five renewal calls usually resulted in a sale). Using renewal calls as a reinforcer had a significant impact on the percentage of warranty sales made. Both salesmen increased the number of warranty sales (10 and 21 percent, respectively). Unexpectedly Gupton and LeBow discovered that both salesmen made more renewal sales as well (4 and 22 percent, respectively).

During the final ten sessions the men were told that they could once again call customers in any order they chose. The percentage of warranty sales took a dramatic nose dive. After the contingencies for warranty sales were removed, neither salesman made any warranty calls. The number of renewal sales also dropped. For the first sales man, the percentage dropped only one percent, whereas the percentage of renewal calls by the second salesman dropped by 21 percent.

Although there are few systematic evaluations of the application of the Premack principle in organizational settings, this study points to its potential cost-effectiveness. Not only did the low-probability behavior of making warranty calls increase substantially, but the high probability behavior of making renewal sales increased as well. In other words, productivity increased in both cases, and there was none of the expense involved in giving bonuses.

Interestingly, the intervention had more of an impact on one of the salesmen. The second salesman's performance increased more than did the first ones. Stated another way, the reinforcer was more effective with the second salesman. This once again points to the importance of tailoring the reinforcers to the individual. An interesting feature of the Gupton-LeBow study is that they did not tell the salesmen how sales should be accomplished, only that they must be closed before the salesmen could call the renewal customers.

Although one salesman showed a greater increase than the other, both showed a significant increase compared with their previous performance. Leaving it up to the individual salesmen to determine their own method of improving their efficiency not only resulted in increased sales, but the salesmen reported that they felt they were being allowed to follow their own unique styles rather than being encouraged to imitate that of someone else. The company was perceived as finally recognizing their individual talents and the salesmen actually enjoyed producing a higher sales rate. This contrasts with the commonly reported feeling of being made by the company to run faster to keep up. They reported that their success genuinely reflected their own talents. On the other hand, the salesmen's program did not employ the use of goal-setting. Goal-setting has a powerful positive impact on performance. Had the salesmen been assigned goals, their percentage of warranty sales may have increased even more.