Behavior modification is getting a tryout on corporate employes. The term behavior modification is usually associated with Harvard rat psychologist B.F. Skinner who teaches, if he'll forgive a little oversimplification, that just as you can make rodents perform in certain ways by rewarding and punishing them, you can work your will on human beings in a similar fashion.

According to Business Week magazine (Jan. 23), Skinnerian ideas are being tried out with happy results at such places as AT&T, GE, Warner-Lambert and B.F. Goodrich. It is claimed that corporations using these techniques are saving millions and getting unheard-of productivity increase out of their workers.

This is all bad news for eccentries, independent thinkers, civil libertarians and those who rightly fear the conjunction of unaccountable corporate power with technological knowhow. It sounds terribly Big Brotherlike, if it really works and if the corporations playing around with it stick to using it. Neither is likely.

As corporate behavior modification is described, the employes whose behavior is to be modified are brought together for a friendly, management-sponsored bull session. Let down your hair, boys and girls: tell the boss exactly what you think about the job. It will take more than the cleverest outside personnel consultant to get bossees to tell bossers that. All who work for a living learn the courtier's art of saying what the boss wants to hear - which of course also includes how to fake being blunt and candid as in, "To be brutally honest about it, boss, the real trouble with the supervisors around here is that they aren't enough like you.

At these sessions everbody is supposed to arrive at new and higher work goals. Either more production, higher quality work or both. Then it's let's go team and rack 'em up. But behavior modification depends upon rewards and punishmants. Fines and firing are out because they risk ruining morale and increasing turnover.

Thus the emphasis is on rewards, the easiest of which is telling the worker about a good job. Supervisors in the more civilized places can be trained to say please and thank you to their subordinates, but expressions like "good job," "well done" come hard to the mouths of people in authority. It lessens one's sense of power and superiority if one feels obliged to compliment a subordinate; it's a tacit admission that maybe the job does really require teamwork.

There is also the deeper fear in the boss psyche that if you tell an employe about a good job a little too often, said wage serf may get the idea he is more valuable and should get compensated with something more tangible then kudos.

An executive at Addressograph-multigraph explains that his company's behavior modification program seeks to provide clerk/typists and other white-collar menials with a sense of belonging. This will work for a while. Sixty years ago when big business first began behavior modification experiments at AT&T's Western Electric subsidiary it was learned that workers love to be guinea pigs for experiments of this sort. They love the fuss made over them, they love being the center of attention, they like the feeling of being important, or as we would say now, they like to believe they belong.

They also respond by working harder and better, but it doesn't last.

Some companies do their rewarding with money. Under what is often referred to as the Scanlon Plan, committees of workers and supervisors meet to set higher goals, but instead of relying on the intangible and sometimes negligible reward of a pat on the back from a boss one detests, under the Scanlon Plan there are money bonuses. That gets it close to piece work, a system of compensation that has been known to cause awful, even violent worker trumoil.

The chances are that behavior modification will work no better than a hundred other schemes executives have tried out in the past. So why do businessmen keep trying? It may have less to do with practical hopes of increasing profits and more to do with the businessmen's unrecognized desire to believe those people out there on the floor turn up every day for some reason besides money. Otherwise, the most promising motivational device is an electric cattle prod.