The Jobs Reality Distortion Field: A Mechanism of Negative Reinforcement?

I wanted to take a stab at examining some of Steve Jobs’ behavior from a behavior analytic perspective. I’ve been reading the Steve Jobs biography written by Walter Isaacson. It is a fascinating read! He was a very charismatic man. He also knew how to get his way and made very calculated moves in order to get what he wanted. Many people who knew him referred to what has been called his ‘reality distortion field’. Most simply, it was his ability to convince himself and others to believe whatever he wanted them to believe. What it really accomplished was to get others to do what he wanted them to do. Jobs was a master at coercion and he frequently used negative reinforcement as a mechanism to get others to acquiesce to his desires.

Jobs often tried to convince his employees to become passionately committed to his projects without regard to their current project or employment status. For example, a programmer might be working on another project or company and be completely satisfied in his position. Yet, if Jobs wanted that person to join his team, he would in essence dismiss the fact the person was doing anything of any value. He then would convince that person that not only was this distorted reality true, but that his project was going to change the world. Now, it’s not to say that he was right (because he often was). By ignoring and essentially dismissing the value of their work, he was able to remove the aversive obstacle from existence even if only in his perception. By ignoring the obstacle, he was allowed the opportunity to continue moving forward to do what he wanted.

The Negative Reinforcement Contingency:

(Aversive Stimulus/Condition) Person engaged in other project/company

(Behavior) Devalue person’s work, offer alternative

(Consequence) Person leaves project/company and joins Jobs

Jobs frequently used negative reinforcement strategies in order to coerce employees to do what he wanted them to do. When it came to product development he demonstrated behaviors that others found aversive, including, but not limited to questioning, ignoring, cursing, yelling, and even crying. He often operated on the premise that they would take challenges as insults and prove him wrong. Jobs would often challenge his employees by criticizing their work before even getting a basic understanding of what they were doing. He would also issue challenges telling them they couldn’t make a deadlines or didn’t have the skill to do so. They would inevitably, prove him ‘wrong’.

The Negative Reinforcement Contingency:

(Aversive Stimulus/Condition) Boss continually criticizes your work

(Behavior) Your work improves or you meet expectations

(Consequence) Boss stops criticizing your work

A third example is how Jobs ignored certain challenges in his life. At times he just ignored that there was an obstacle whether it be a disagreement with authority, technical issue, or personal problem. He just focused on the task at hand. Jobs seemed to be very adept at ignoring distracting personal or professional issues in order to focus on his projects. Often times the problem would just go away, because he would just do what he wanted. By ignoring obstacles he was often times able to put his ideas into reality whether he was right or wrong (despite future ramifications).

The Negative Reinforcement Contingency:

(Aversive Stimulus/Condition) Mandate to implement a certain procedure you disagree with

(Behavior) Implement procedure the way you want

(Consequence) Avoid implementing the procedure the way you were mandated

For the record, I don’t endorse the manner in which Jobs treated his employees (at least in these examples).  However, these do serve as example of negative reinforcement based on Steve Jobs’ behavior as documented in Isaacson’s book. Jobs clearly knew how to use the presentation and consequent removal of aversive conditions and stimuli to increase desired behaviors of others (Cooper, Heron, Heward, 2007). It must also be noted that negative reinforcement is not a bad thing! Negative reinforcement is a very powerful method for promoting behavior change. But, it must be used carefully. Done incorrectly it can easily be misused as a punishment procedure. There are already plenty of naturally occurring negative reinforcement contingencies in the workplace that contriving more to increase performance is unnecessary. Therefore, the business world is better served by using positive reinforcement strategies and procedures for generating desired behavior and performance.


Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Isaacson, Walter. (2011). Steve Jobs. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

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