The Good Side of the Principle of Reinforcement

Huangshan Sunrise

Sunrise over Huangshan, Anhui Province, China

Sometimes, when considering how the social physics works, it’s all too easy to fall into the rut of looking at the Dark Side.

But the Principle of Reinforcement works for positive empathetic construction as well.  One of the key elements of Spiral Dynamics is that the core principles are fundamentally coded inside of each of us, waiting to be unlocked.  So also, then, is it true that positive empathetic growth is possible, if the social/relational structures are correct for the desired behavior.

One of the interesting parts of my job is that I am the self-anointed Director of The Industrial Design Clinic – the curricular vehicle that we use for the students’ ‘capstone’ class — the last class they’re supposed to take before leaving to take jobs in industry.  In this class, undergraduate seniors are given a project, in groups typically of 4-6 people, where they are supposed to complete a piece of work from an industrial sponsor before they graduate.  At some level, it resembles the old idea from the guilds of a young person completing a ‘masterpiece’ before being allowed to graduate from an apprenticeship.  The main difference is that they must do it in groups, and it must meet specification.

The first step in the class, therefore, is that the spec. must be drafted.  This is done in conjunction with the industrial client mentioned above.  This happens on a site visit to the customer’s facility, to establish an empathetic baseline with that person, and let the students see first-hand the environment that typically the project must work in.  Nothing like boots on the ground — especially from an empathetic development perspective.  Looking at someone’s face lets the students know exactly what’s important to them.

Once the project is delivered, the customer must sign off on the fact that the product meets the specification.  And additionally, the customer must also be happy.

Though other classes in other engineering programs resemble my program on the surface, precious few have the emphasis on completion and customer satisfaction mine has.  Also, the usual interface for the industrial sponsor with the students is as a mentor — replacing the role of professor as an experienced engineer, directing the project.

I never ran projects this way — mostly fueled by my old Catholic guilt (legalistic/absolutistic failure?.)  I was charging money, and having the customer basically direct the work just didn’t sit right with me.  So, as the director of the clinic, I told them they couldn’t bother the customer except at scheduled intervals to assure coherence with the larger project schedule and goals.

Where are the students along the Spiral?  Like most kids their age, they’re pretty externally defined, ensconced in status-chasing and egocentricity.  New clothes, a motorcycle, and for the most part, a pleasant and not overbearing attitude of the world being about them.  They follow rules for the most part — my students aren’t a bunch of sociopaths.  And they’ve been bombarded for the last four years with tons and tons of algorithmic thought — rule following for everything from technical English papers to thermodynamics problems.

What that means is that they’re pretty Authoritarian/Legalistic.  Which means, of course, that they’re used to the fragmented social structure of the academy — to the point where it’s as natural as the air that they breathe.  That’s the Principle of Reinforcement in action.

And then they meet me.  I give them a client, and put them into groups.  Fair enough — they’ve done group work before.  Universities are full of talk about how we train kids to ‘collaborate’.

But what does that mean in the context of the inherent social structure of the university?  It means that the kids follow orders — they go visit the company that’s hosting their project, and duly write their spec., using a template called a House of Quality, using a process called Quality Function Deployment.  All of this is accepted current practice.  QFD comes from the Harvard Business School.

But what is fascinating is how the kids start the project.  They take whatever the immediate task is, and then divide that into however many members are in the group.  If there are 4 members, then the first deliverable, the spec., will have four different parts.  If there are 6, they’ll split it into six parts, and so on.

It’s easy enough to see where this behavior comes from.  There are tons of university edicts telling students that if they share work, they’ll be accused of cheating.  Grading also factors in here — students figure they’ll be put on the spot to show their contribution, and if the work isn’t divided — and fairly — they’ll potentially fail.  All this, once again, is naturally produced by the social structure.  Grading is a status-based sorting exercise, regardless of the rationale applied.  And the idea of ‘fairness’ is an inherent legalistic classification.

Where does synergy come into this picture?  The answer is “it doesn’t.”  Synergies are not a natural part of the social/relational structure of the academy.   It’s the reason we continue, whenever confronted with a new discipline, to create a new silo.  The organizational structure is self-replicating, quite literally ad infinitum.

When I started doing all of this, I had no benefit of the various theories I am laying out in this blog.  I just knew that the kids did weak work.  There was little fact-checking, and precious little reality behind a large amount of the work products.  Schedules created were meaningless, filled with fuzzy subjects like ‘design’ or ‘research’.  Milestones had no potential for accountability.

How then to evolve the students to be integrative team players in an authoritarian environment?  The answer was surprisingly simple.  As the chief authority, I ordered it.  But as discussed previously, ordering it is not enough.  I had to create cultural and organizational sidebars to create the behavior from the students I wanted to see.  Those sidebars will be the subject of the next blog post.

Takeaways:  It is a function of sentience that inside of almost all humans (there are exceptions) we have the potential to unlock all the different empathetic modes and climb up the Spiral.  But sometimes, as the boss, you have to order it up.  If you do it right, you’ll see the emergent behavior you want to see.

Further Reading:  Good scaffolding matters.  It never hurts to have a House of Quality as part of your specification when doing design.

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