About Behavioral & Contingency Theories

by Alexandra Schmidt; Updated September 26, 2017
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Behavioral theories are a large class of theories in psychology that attempt to explain why individuals act in certain ways, and how to increase or decrease certain behaviors. Contingency theory, in particular, usually refers to a set of theories that describe behaviors within an organizational context, such as the relationship between someone in a leadership role and the group under their direction. Each theory has several components that are central to understanding the larger concept.

Behavioral Theory: Classical Conditioning

In classical conditioning, behaviors are learned by involuntary responses, or things we react to automatically. For example, if you become ill from eating fish once, the sight of any seafood may make you feel ill in the future. Behaviors can be intentionally increased through practice and positive reinforcement, where a desired behavior is followed by a reward. Decreasing behaviors is possible by removing the positive reward or teaching individuals to replace the behavior with with a more desirable one.

Behavioral Theory: Operant Conditioning

The theory of operant conditioning outlines the concept of reinforcement more in depth. It states that to increase behavior, the reinforcement must follow the behavior immediately, and the reinforcement must only occur when the behavior does. It also discusses differential reinforcement, where behaviors that are close to the desired behavior are reinforced until the desired behavior occurs. Finally, a way to decrease desired behaviors is through punishment, where an aversive stimulus (such as a loud noise) is introduced, or a positive stimulus (such as being able to listen to music) is removed.

Behavior Theory in the Organizational Context

In the context of an organization, behavioral theory is related to successful leadership. Instead of viewing a successful leader as someone who is born with traits, it states that leaders can be developed. Using behavior modification techniques, leaders can be taught specific behaviors. This changes the focus of hiring practices from searching for the best leader through personality assessments to viewing applicants as people who can be molded into leaders.

Fiedler's Contingency Theory

This theory was developed by Fred Fiedler in the field of industrial and organizational psychology. It discusses the relationship between leadership style and a group's performance in various types of situations. Leaders can have several styles of leadership or orientation, including being focused on personal relationships and sensitivity towards the feelings of others. In the task-oriented style, leaders are more focused on the task that must be accomplished and less concerned with relationships. For each leadership style, the type of situation will impact whether or not the behaviors are successful. Leaders can either have low, moderate or high control over the situation. For example, relationship-oriented leaders may be more successful in moderate-control situations, where they can work on group relations and feel challenged. In high-control situations, however, they may become bored. For task-oriented leaders, high-control situations may allow them to develop positive relationships with their group as the work is completed. In moderate-control situations, however, they may become less effective.

About the Author

Alexandra Schmidt has been writing professionally since 2006, contributing to several online publications. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and is pursuing her doctorate in counseling psychology at the University of Missouri.

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