University-based executive education – Learning from a small box

University-based executive education – Learning from a small box

editor’s note: This article is the first in a series of submissions by UNICON member institutions.

University-based executive education – Learning from a small box

This is a little story about a box. It is a story I love to tell my students at the beginning of their very first class, at their very first day of a course, when they have just arrived at the university where I teach.

The story starts with a box and a rat and the famous American psychologist BF Skinner*. In his eponymous series of experiments Skinner put rats in a box and studied how varying rewards changed their behavior.

The rat was set in a box with a lever. By accident, the rat would pull the lever and food pellets rolled in. In the beginning, food pellets came reliably whenever the rat pulled the lever. The rat learned – she got ‚conditioned’ – that she had to pull the lever only when she was hungry. After a while, Skinner varied the experiment.  Only every other time food pellets would some. More often there was no food, only sometimes a lot. The reward for her behavior changed and became unpredictable. Skinner was amazed how varying rewards changed the behavior: varying rewards created even addictive behavior – in the later experiments, the rat pulled the lever almost constantly, craving for food.

At this point I stop and ask my students why they would think I tell them this story?

Shoulder shrugs.

Then I mention the gambling industry as one of the first to realize the potential of that scientific insight: Since the 1960s, almost any casino on this planet is built like a Skinner box. In this scenario humans got conditioned and use coins as levers to trigger their cash rewards. And casinos make fortunes with Skinner’s insight.

Again, I ask my class for relevance. “Does anyone know the Skinner boxes of our time?“

Hesitation and skepticism.

Then I would spin the thread to Stanford scientist BJ Fogg who in the 1990s began designing computers to influence attitudes and behaviors, using the principles of the Skinner box. At this moment my students understand that their smartphones represent the Skinner boxes of our time. App designers have used these insights to create addictive moments and change our behaviour. The ‘food’ here is mental: Another email, message, news? What might be the reward for my checking in?

While closing, I make the point that this is what we do in university-based education:

We take scientific insights and present them as a lens, for our students to see the world differently. Those who listen carefully can make their fortune – and become better leaders:

Learning from BF Skinner, we realize how responsible we are for our team members. We should ask ourselves what the conditions are that we create in our areas of responsibility. What are the rewards that we set to incentivize behaviour?

The last question I arrive at is to ask whether my students want to be rats, being triggered by their phones, or whether they want to be in control of what they do.

They normally put their phones away. At least for a while.


Katharina Lange
Executive Director, SMU Executive Development
Singapore Management University

* Burrhus Frederic Skinner was the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University from 1958 until his retirement in 1974.


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