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A micro level view of the self-reinforcement process.

Every employer would like employees to become increasingly committed to their jobs, to their organization, and to excellence. Self-reinforcement and positive self-image appear to bolster such commitment, whereas self-justification tends to moderate it. The authors' model--coupled with an extensive literature review--explains the complex interactions among these attributes plus the effects of organizational and national cultures on "escalation of commitment." A deeper understanding of the processes that establish and contribute to behavioral tendencies should benefit managers.


The present condition of the international business environment has sparked renewed interests in understanding the process by which individuals make behavioral decisions and rationalize their actions. News about the shrewd and sometimes unethical and unscrupulous behaviors of corporate executives is commonplace. Some of the schemes and schemers highlighted lately are the Bernard Madoff scam (United States Ponzi scheme), Amway and Quixtar scam (consumer fraud and phony business opportunities), Weizhen Tang (Canadian Ponzi scheme and securities fraud), and the AIG scandal (alleged misuse of government bailout funds).

As these are considered, it is often difficult to understand the thought processes and rationales of the people involved. Actions that seem to have no logical basis might very well be determined by personal validation and reasoning. Indeed, most of the strategic decisions that people make are not impulsive, but vigilant. The questions at hand are how and why people continue to engage in behaviors that yield detrimental results and have the potential to harm many. Is there some hidden reward system? Or is it that individuals lack the ability to see the consequences of their actions? Understanding the processes that establish and contribute to behavioral tendencies and commitments to action paths in the work environment can help managers and organizational leaders systematically control, influence, and shape behavior in a manner that decreases undesirable conduct and enhances organizational performance.

To probe deeper into the process of human behavior motivation and the path that leads to escalation of commitment, we believe that an in-depth look at the self-reinforcement process is merited. Specifically, the notion that individuals are primarily concerned about what benefits themselves and their internal state of agreement merits attention. Individuals focus on self-image, image management, self-affirmation, and self-justification. However, since individuals do not live in a vacuum, environmental factors can also influence their behavior. Therefore, we examine the impact of organizational and national culture. Moreover, the theoretical framework suggested here is designed to integrate and extend the theory related to self and culture so as to provide practical knowledge helpful to organizations.

Literature Review


In this context, self-reinforcement is defined as an internal system in which outcomes related to a particular behavior produce or lead to more of that behavior. Self-reinforcement arises from individual interpretation of consequences associated with particular actions. The self-reinforcement process is related to path dependency in that current behavioral decisions are influenced by the consequences of past actions.

Past study results indicated that organizational leaders who are perceived as trustworthy and who provide developmental feedback contribute to self-reinforcement (Elloy, 2008). Other researchers such as Mezo and Heiby (2004), identified self-reinforcement as a facet of self-control. More recently, Hershberger, Ziyd, Rodes and Stolfi (2010), recognized this competency as an important facet of human behavior and interpersonal interaction that is difficult to understand and measure.

Trying to understand the processes of self-reinforcement is not a modern phenomenon. In "The Myth of Self-Reinforcement," (1975) Catania argued that the factors contributing to behavioral management by self-reinforcement are difficult, if not logically unfeasible, to distinguish. Review of the empirical literature appears to support this conclusion. Difficulties include the use of experimenter-identified (rather than subject-identified) target responses (Glynn, 1970); the presence of an observer who may wield antecedent control over the subject's behavior (Ninnes et al., 1989); and the failure to confirm self-delivered reinforcers as functional reinforcers, along with the intertwining of self-reinforcement with external (social) reinforcement (Nelson, Hayes, Spong, Jarrett, and McKnight, 1983).

However, as scholars attempt to gain insight into the process of rational decision making and individual behavioral choices, reinforcement has been recognized as an important construct. Rehm (1977) applied the three components of the self-control model, originally proposed by Kanfer (1970), to self-reinforcement for his theoretical model for depression. The following components were reconstructed by Rehm for self-reinforcement: establishing response criteria for reinforcement, discriminating the response when it occurs, and administering the self-reinforcement either covertly or overtly.

Another essential component of self-reinforcement is rewarding oneself and building natural rewards into one's own work (Belle, Colletem, and Ellemers, 2009). Moreover, self-reinforcement involves recognition and appreciation for actions that lead to effective performance. Given sufficient information, individuals evaluate their own accomplishments. By studying the processes by which individuals reinforce their actions, more insight can be gained into why they engage in behavior that we otherwise do not understand. A fundamental starting point is identifying factors and situations that contribute to the self-reinforcement process.


In order for self-reinforcement to lead to positive outcomes, people must be critical of their own performance. By learning to recognize faults in their work practices, they can gain increased knowledge of their performance and recognize appropriate behaviors for success (Belle et al., 2009). However, in some cases, self-reinforcement can lead to negative outcomes. The lack of honest self-evaluation and the presence of personal and situational rationalization might lead to continued negative behavior and, ultimately, disaster.

Considering the overall potential of the self-reinforcement process, focus and attention is merited. Internal and external factors may be necessary to promote norms of behavior based on individual, group, or cultural aspects. The following model was developed to improve understanding of the self-reinforcement process.

Antecedents to Self-reinforcement

As depicted in Figure 1, self-image, image management, and self-affirmation are conceptualized as antecedents of self-reinforcement. The theoretical basis for this conceptualization is explicated in the following sections.


In almost all applications of the self-image congruence hypothesis, positive, desirable, or agreeable self-concept facets are stressed. In other words, implicit comparisons between the self as currently experienced and an imagined desired end state are emphasized (Bosnjak and Brand, 2008).

There is a growing awareness that conventional models of motivation do not explain the diversity of behavior in organizations (Leonar, Beauvias, and Scholl, 1999). Therefore, some have begun to explore how self-concept influences choice of actions and have focused on self-theory as an additional explanation of motivated behavior. These theories are based on the notion that people have a basic need to maintain or enhance the "phenomenal self" (Snyder and Williams, 1982). To fulfill this need, people are motivated to behave in ways that are consistent with their self-perception. Thus, people's motivation to maintain the self-prescribed appropriate self-image has the ability to influence their behavior.

Although individuals differ in their motivation to maintain an agreeable self-image, specific events that threaten a positive self-image can activate this motivation. Understanding this might help to explain why people engage in activities that do not seem rational based on external motivational factors and reinforcers. It is suggested that some people are more motivated by opportunities to enhance their internalized view of self.

Self-concept-based motivation may be a basis for deliberate and calculated explanations of behavior (Leonard et al., 1999) within organizations. Once a person's professional identity is established, he or she makes choices among behavioral options, sets and accepts goals, and undertakes projects aimed at achieving feedback consistent with this self-image. The expectancy theory can be used to explain the role of self-concept in determining actions. The valence of feedback is based on the value or values associated with the person's established identity. In other words, a person's behavior is considered to be a choice process used to obtain feedback on traits, competencies, or values deemed important in relation to the ideal self (Gecasm, 1982; Korman, 1970).

When activities lead to desired outcomes and feedback, self-reinforcement is strengthened. Moreover, if the individual perceives that his or her current behavior is consistent with the desired image of self, the activities will serve as a reinforcer. On the contrary, if the activities reflect an undesired self, avoidance tendencies will be triggered (Bosnjak and Brand, 2008).

Proposition 1: Self-concept will be positively linked to self-reinforcement when behavior is perceived to be consistent with the desired self-image and negatively linked to self-reinforcement when behavior perceived to be inconsistent with the desired self-image.

Image management

Image management, conceptualized as synonymous to impression management, is considered to be an effort to create a positive social image. It is further described as a process by which individuals try to exert control over the image others have of them. Impression management is viewed as conscious effort to exhibit certain behaviors that will make others view the person as desirable (Bozman and Kacmar, 1997). Research evidence suggests that individuals are more inclined to engage in impression management when the benefits they receive are greater (Roberts, 2005). These benefits serve as personal rewards and self-reinforcement.

In the context of the work setting, employees choose their image management strategies to yield positive outcomes and maximize their personal gains (Dory and Zaidman, 2007). Impression management is accentuated in contexts in which the person is being evaluated in some manner and is a function of extreme pressures (Gilmore, 1999). Employees in all levels of an organization may feel compelled to engage in impression management. Their image management strategies may be assertive or defensive (Wayne and Liden, 1995).

Through the use of assertive strategies, an individual attempts to establish a particular reputation with a specific target audience. The actions involved in this process are not merely a reaction to a situation (Wayne and Liden, 1995). For example, sales managers may do certain things to establish credibility with clients, and financial planners may select information to invoke trust. Additionally, some may use impression management to indicate stronger commitment when their actual commitment may be weak (Singh and Vinnicombe, 1991). This allows them to advance their personal agendas while appearing to have the organization's interest at heart.

Alternatively, defensive strategies are generally utilized in response to subpar performance (Wayne and Liden, 1995). These actions include, but are not limited to, excuses, apologies, explanations, and self-handicapping. By engaging in these kinds of behaviors, individuals might be able to avoid taking responsibility for mistakes, failures, and even incompetence. Ultimately, defensive strategies enable individuals to defend and protect their face and reputation.

Rewards or the lack of negative consequences from successful impression management attempts might indicate effective performance. Skillful use of impression management can yield both immediate gratification and beneficial outcomes. Therefore, it can be expected that individuals will find it acceptable to engage in behaviors that create and substantiate a desired image of themselves.

Proposition 2a: Image management will be positively linked to self-reinforcement when impression management behavior leads to desired presentation of self.

Proposition 2b: Image management will be negatively linked to self-reinforcement when impression management behavior leads to undesired presentation of self.


Self-affirmation refers to behavioral or cognitive events that bolster a person's perception of their integrity, moral and adaptive adequacy, and confidence (Schmeichel and Vohs, 2009). It is generally studied in the context of individuals' reactions to ego threats that have unfavorable implications (Tice, 1993). Such threats can elicit self-enhancing tendencies. Assuming that self-affirmation affects confidence, people will more readily engage in behavior that validates their abilities and self-worth. In keeping with this line of thought, past studies have shown that self-affirmation induces high performance motivation and a focus on the personal self (Brinol, Petty, Gallardo, and DeMarree, 2007).

Other studies (Hobfoll, 1989; Ryff and Singer, 1998; Sherman and Cohen, 2006; Creswell et al, 2007) expand the relevance of self-affirmation mental and physical health, dealing specifically with recovery from adverse health conditions. The studies found that self-affirming activity is important in buffering physiological discomforts and protecting good health (Creswell et al, 2005).

Sherman (2006) examined how self-affirmation affected cognitive responses to adverse information and events. He outlined four tenets of self-affirmation: people are motivated to protect their perceived integrity and worth of self; motivations to protect self-integrity can result in defensive responses; the self-system is flexible; and people can be affirmed by engaging in activities that remind them of who they are. Furthermore, self-affirmation has the potential to buffer against threats by decreasing information processing. This likely affects the cognitive process so that negative messages are perceived more positively and create a strong inclination to work for self even at the expense of the group (Creswell, Lam, Stanton, and Taylor, 2007). It is therefore proposed that:

Proposition 3: Self-affirmation will be positively linked to self-reinforcement.

Self-justification as a Moderator


Figure 1 presents self-justification as an important factor that affects the relationship between the antecedents described in the previous sections and self-reinforcement. Self-justification theory suggests that a person tends to justify prior behavior, rebuffing any negative feedback associated with the course of action (Brockner, 1992; Keil, 1995). A person influenced by self-justification will be inclined to have a very favorable opinion of previously chosen actions. When there are perceived discrepancies related to self-concept, negative feedback from image management attempts, or a lack of self-affirmation, individuals will react by triggering the potentially adaptive sense-making strategy of self-justification.

Although a host of behaviors can be used to deal with this dissonance, a few fundamental ones are described here. Individuals might seek validating evidence to diminish the disconfirming feedback or discredit the source. Changing feedback by presenting evidence or arguing that the original evaluation was incorrect are other alternatives used to justify past behavior (Leonard et al, 1999). Both of these strategies are related to attempts to change the presentation or interpretation of behavioral feedback.

Other reactive strategies might be used to manipulate the perceived link between the person and unfavorable outcomes and feedback. For instance, people try to disassociate themselves from the outcome or behavioral effects by publically claiming that they were not aware or were not trying. Similarly, those experiencing the discomfort of inner friction might attempt to show that a particular outcome or behavioral effect was "not their fault" and was the result of forces outside of their control. Both of these reactive strategies aim to cause a disconnect between the outcomes and the person's personal traits, competencies, and values.

Consistent with self-justification theory, the risk-reduction benefit of continuing the course of action associated with prior behavior and resource allocation frequently leads to additional commitment of resources, even if the additional commitment is irrational (Bobocel and Meyer, 1994; Brockner, 1992). Based on the general characteristics of self-justification, the following proposition is made:

Proposition 4a: Self-justification will exacerbate the positive relationship between the previously identified antecedents and self-reinforcement.

Proposition 4b: Self-justification will diminish the negative relationship between the previously identified antecedents and self-reinforcement.

Escalation of Commitment as an Outcome

The outcome presented in this theoretical model is escalation of commitment (see Figure 1). The escalation-of-commitment phenomenon refers to an individual's propensity to make an increased commitment to previously chosen courses of action when the individual is chiefly responsible for making that decision (Staw and Fox, 1977), or the actions serve to uphold, enhance, or protect the person's image or reputation, or both. The basic precept of escalating commitment refers to the tendency to persist with a failing course of action, leading to delayed termination of failing projects despite availability of new information (Schmidt and Calantone, 2002; Barton, Sidney, Duchon, Dennis, and Dunegan, 1989). Since self-reinforcement is embedded, the following proposition is made:

Proposition 5: Self-reinforcement will be positively and directly linked to escalation of commitment.

Although we propose that self-reinforcement is directly linked to escalation of commitment, we also suggest that other factors, not directly related to individuals' concept of self (real or constructed), affect their propensity to move relentlessly down a path of action. In other words, we suggest an interaction between personal systems and features of the environment. Zayer (2007) investigated personal systems and provided a conceptual model that integrates various psychological factors leading to escalation commitment. The three moderating effects (i.e., timing, unquestioned decision scope, and overconfidence) identified by Zayer, have been recognized in other research (Drummond, 1995; Teger, 1980; Russo and Shoemaker, 1992) as the critical elements in escalating commitment. However, to understand escalation commitment better, other real-world environmental factors should also be considered as potential moderators. Specifically, we posit that organizational and national cultures influence the relationship between self-reinforcement and escalation of commitment.

Culture as a Moderator

As shown in Figure 1, the model of the self-reinforcement process presented here suggests that both organizational and national cultures interact with self-reinforcement to predict levels of escalation of commitment. Cultures revolve around shared value systems. They direct younger members on the appropriateness of specific behaviors and encourage the perpetuation of the status quo. Both national and organizational cultural environments serve this purpose.

Organizational culture

The influence of organizational structure and leaders is immense, shaping work values, acceptable behaviors, and employee attitudes by nurture and nature. Organizational cultures differ in their views of human resources and, these differences are associated with various value systems, assumptions, and expectations regarding their employees. Desirable behavior, competence, and excellence are defined by the organization's cultural system (Drory and Zaidman, 2007). There is some evidence that culture influences employee behaviors and attitudes including job satisfaction, performance, and commitment to quality (Victor and Cullen, 1987). Moreover, the culture provides powerful cues for acceptable behavior and serves as an external reinforcement factor.

Increasing interest in ethical and unethical conduct has led to research on the influence that organizational cultural exerts on workplace behavior. Most scholars agree that characteristics of organizational culture include contextual factors such as values, codes, rules, form (mechanistic or organic), and specific factors (profit margin, market share, and compensation system) (Erben and Guneser, 2008). Another; and perhaps the most important, organization-specific factor is leadership.

Leaders are seen as responsible for inspiring ethical standards in their employees and the organization as a whole. They serve as role models for others for appropriate behaviors (Dickenson, Smith, Grojean, and Ehrhart, 2001) and set the standard for how ethical problems and questions are handled (Neilsen, 1989). In summary, leaders set the tone and create the climate within the organization.

It has been argued that values come to the forefront in exigent or difficult situations that confront organizations (Badaracco, 1998). Badaracco termed these situations "defining moments." Leaders' actions in these defining moments set precedents and indicate what is acceptable or permissible. During challenging periods, effective leaders will reflect on questions related to personal identity, organizational identity, and the direction the organization should take. According to Graber and Kilpatrick (2008), crises are necessary to test and evoke the leader's values. If the organizational culture and leadership enable employees to obtain favorable performance evaluations, promotion opportunities, and career advancement by doing what they are currently doing, the culture will reinforce existing actions and lead to escalation of commitment.

Proposition 7: Organizational culture will interact with the self-reinforcement process to influence escalation of commitment.

National culture

Although national culture is an exceedingly difficult concept to define, most scholars agree that it is the shared ways in which groups of people understand and interpret their surroundings. Hofstede (1984) proposed that culture is learned and, therefore, is rooted in a society or nation. It is similar to a cognitive program acquired early in life and reinforced through a broad program of socialization. The influence of culture on human activity is deemed pervasive (Williams, Han, and Qualls, 1998). Hall (1976) asserts that individuals' thought processes are greatly modified by national culture. Because of the deep effects of culture on lives, it provides a highly consistent way of living that is not intentionally constructed (Hall, 1976).

Heine (1997) notes that most research has been conducted in North America, which makes it difficult to generalize the psychological theories. However, building upon previous studies (e.g., Steele, Spencer, and Lynch, 1993; Bond and Cheung, 1983; Campbell, Trapnell, Heine, Katz, Lavalle, and Lehman, 1996; Mahler, 1976), Hein acknowledges that any association between self-esteem and dissonance reduction (or self-affirmation) may be related to a particular culture. The standards for "appropriate" behavior vary across cultures, groups, and situations (Heine, 2005). Similarly, threats to self-integrity may be present in various forms, but will always involve genuine and perceived failures to meet culturally or socially significant standards (Leary and Baumeister, 2000).

Numerous studies concerning cross-cultural distinctions in the concept of experience and selfhood (e.g., Markus and Kityama, 1991; Kim and Markus, 1999; Hein et al, 1999) pose a critical question regarding the effect of culture on the self-reinforcement process. The study by Hein et al (1999) clearly describes the differences between individualistic (U.S./North America) and collectivist cultures. Also, the relationship between national cultures and escalation of commitment has been explored to some degree. In a study of Mexican and U.S. decision-makers, Stephens (2001), examined the differences in tendencies toward escalation of commitment. The study showed that the Mexican decision-makers were significantly more prone to escalation than their American counterparts. Also, the Mexican decision-makers reported significantly greater confidence in their escalatory decisions.

However, the majority of studies on self-reinforcement and escalation of commitment do not address the concepts at a comparable level across the cultures. Some authors (Hiniker, 1969) have claimed that people from particular cultures might not experience dissonance. The "fit" between cultural values and individual behavior may be viewed as arising from the implicit models associated with national cultures (Hofstede, 1991). This theory is extended to capture the possible effects of national culture and assumes that individuals prefer to engage in behaviors that are consistent with basic cultural perspectives. Therefore, it is proposed that:

Proposition 8: National culture will interact with the self-reinforcement process to influence escalation of commitment.

Discussion and Implications

The self-reinforcement process has been identified as an important process that determines behavior and contributes to escalation of commitment. Each construct in the model plays a significant role and is vital to the process. Self-related theory supports the notion that many personal cognitive and behavioral decisions are motivated by efforts to maintain internal consistency between concepts of self and external feedback (Gecasm, 1982; Korman, 1970) and to validate self-worth (Schmeichel and Vohs, 2009). Additionally, social influence theory establishes impression management as a powerful motivator to engage in certain behaviors (Bozman and Kacmar, 1997). This study integrates these theories and presents a logical approach to understanding the factors that contribute to self-reinforcement. The ability of people to rationalize their behavior and create an acceptable explanation for their choices also affects their views and preferences. This is incorporated into the study when the relevance of self-justification is considered.

In many cases, organizations have little or no control over the effects that the identified antecedents might have. However, the interaction between self-reinforcement and organizational culture allows organizational leaders to influence patterns of behavior. Supervisors who give feedback and are perceived as trusting and encouraging of innovative behaviors contribute to the development of self-leadership behaviors such as self-reinforcement (Elloy, 2008). On the other hand, current reward and recognition systems used by most organizations in evaluating contributions, and the ever-increasing demands on senior management, may encourage leaders to influence junior managers and employees to engage in activities in the mentors' preferred domains. Sometimes, employees may feel constrained by the organizational culture in pursuing a specific personal agenda.

Increasing multicultural awareness is also essential for organizational leaders. In a global business environment, learning and understanding other cultures are essential in dealing with cross-national differences. A common obstacle confronting a company with global business ambitions is being ill-informed about a country's cultural dimensions (e.g., power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism versus collectivism, and gender-based attitudes). Understanding important aspects of national culture might prevent the pitfalls of ethnocentric behavior. Careful consideration of both cultural factors (e.g., organizational and national) and the desire to change the general attitude of cynicism toward organizations (e.g., corporations and big businesses) can promote desirable behavior and deter actions deemed detrimental. Strong ethical leadership is vital to this approach.

Future direction

The model in this study is a starting point intended to inspire further exploration of self-reinforcement in the context of the corporate environment. The information here can be used as a basis for future empirical studies that test the model's suggested links. Few studies have investigated the interrelationship between the proposed antecedents, and little is known about their combined impact on self-reinforcement and escalation of commitment. Additionally, the possibility that culture might have a dual moderating influence could be explored. Although organizational and national cultures were posited as moderators of the self-reinforcement-escalation of commitment relationship in the model (Figure 1), it is also feasible that culture might interact with the antecedents to establish self-reinforcement. Additionally, an in-depth exploration of the conditions in which self-reinforcement leads to positive or negative outcomes is merited.


This study has been mainly concerned with the self-reinforcement process and its impact on escalation of commitment. The model presented sought to establish a systematic approach to understanding behavioral motivation that recognizes the intertwined effects of self-reinforcement and external pressure to engage in specific behavior. Understanding the factors that influence individuals' paths of action can help deter disastrous behavior before it escalates and encourage desired behavior that might change the corporate environment. The benefits of creating a more positive corporate world can translate into positive gains for individuals, organizations, economies, and the societies in which corporations conduct business.


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Matrecia S. L. James, Jacksonville University

Mohamad Sepehri, Jacksonville University

Dr. James, whose teaching focuses on leadership, organizational behavior, business ethics, organizational design, and change management, also analyzes micro-level dynamics in organizations. Her research on cynicism in organizations, social influence, workplace spirituality, and leadership has been published in numerous journals and conference proceedings. Before joining academia, she was employed in the retail and personnel development industries. Dr. Sepehri combines academic and business experience with an extensive background in strategic management and leadership as well as international business. He has published widely and served as expert advisor and consultant to a number of municipal and state governments.
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Author:James, Matrecia S.L.; Sepehri, Mohamad
Publication:SAM Advanced Management Journal
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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