Operant conditioning is frequently used in everyday life and in parenting. Let’s examine the common types of reinforcement schedules and how their application affects parenting.
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Schedules Of Reinforcement
Schedules of reinforcement are the rules that control the timing and frequency of reinforcement delivery to make a target behavior more likely to happen, strengthen or continue.
Reinforcement schedules are contingency schedules.
The reinforcers are only given when target behavior has occurred, and therefore, the reinforcement is contingent on the desired behavior.
There are two main categories of schedules: intermittent and non-intermittent.
Non-intermittent schedules apply reinforcement, or no reinforcement at all, after each successful response while intermittent schedules apply reinforcement after some, but not all, responses.
Non-intermittent Reinforcement Schedules
Two types of non-intermittent schedules are Continuous Reinforcement Schedule and Extinction.
A Continuous Reinforcement schedule (CRF) presents the reinforcement after every performance of the desired behavior. This schedule of reinforcement is the quickest in teaching a new behavior.
A continuous positive reinforcement schedule is often used in animal operant conditioning training. A dog is rewarded with a treat every time it does a trick correctly.
This schedule also works well with very young children teaching them simple behaviors such as potty training. For example, toddlers earn candy every time they use the potty successfully.
Partial Reinforcement Schedule (Intermittent Reinforcement)
A partial reinforcement schedule rewards desired behaviors occasionally, but not every single time.
Behavior intermittently reinforced by a partial schedule is usually stronger and more resistant to extinction (more on this later).
Therefore, after a new behavior is learned using a continuous schedule, an intermittent schedule is often applied to maintain or strengthen it.
Many different types of intermittent schedules are possible, but the four types of intermittent schedules commonly used in psychology are based on the time elapsed (interval) or the number of responses made (ratio).
The four types of partial reinforcement schedules are:
- Fixed interval schedule (FI)
- Fixed ratio schedule (FR)
- Variable interval schedule (VI)
- Variable ratio schedule (VR)
Fixed Interval Schedule (FI)
A Fixed-Interval schedule delivers a reward to targeted behavior when a set amount of time has elapsed since the previous reinforcement.
This schedule usually trains the subject, person or animal, to time the interval and then the targeted behavior occurs quickly towards the end of the interval.
A “scalloping” pattern of break-run behavior is the characteristic of this type of reinforcement schedule. The subject pauses after every reinforcement and then delivers the behavior at a faster rate as the next reinforcement approaches1.
College students studying for final exams is a classic example of the Fixed Interval schedule.
Most universities schedule fixed interval in between final exams.
Many students whose grades depend entirely on the exam performance don’t study much at the beginning of the semester, but they cram when it’s almost exam time.
Here, studying is the targeted behavior and the grades are reinforcement given after the final exam at the end of the semester.
Because an exam only occurs at fixed intervals, usually at the end of a semester, many students do not pay attention to studying until the exam time comes.
Variable Interval Schedule (VI)
A Variable-Interval schedule delivers the reinforcer after a variable amount of time has passed since the previous reinforcement.
This schedule usually generates a steady rate of performance due to the uncertainty about the time of the next reward and is thought to be habit-forming2.
Students whose grades depend on the performance of pop quizzes throughout the semester study regularly instead of cramming at the end.
Students know pop quizzes will be given a number of times throughout the year, but they cannot determine when it occurs.
Without knowing the specific schedule, students usually study harder throughout the entire time instead of postponing until the last minute.
Variable interval schedules are more effective than fixed interval schedules in teaching and reinforcing behavior that needs to be performed at a steady rate3.
Fixed Ratio Schedule
A fixed-ratio schedule delivers reinforcement after a specific number of responses are delivered.
Fixed ratio schedules produce high rates of response until a reward is received, which is then followed by a pause in the behavior.
A toymaker produces toys and the store only buys toys in batches of 5. When the maker produces toys at a high rate, he makes more money.
In this case, toys are only required when all five have been made.
The toy-making is rewarded and reinforced when five are delivered.
People who follow such a fixed ratio schedule usually take a break after they are rewarded and then the cycle of fast-production begins again.
Variable Ratio Schedule
A variable-ratio schedule delivers reinforcement after a variable number of responses are made.
This schedule produces a high and steady response rate.
Gambling at a slot machine is a classic example of a variable ratio reinforcement schedule4.
Gambling rewards unpredictably. Each winning requires a different number of lever pulls. Gamblers keep pulling the lever in hopes of winning. Therefore, for some people, gambling is not only habit-forming but is also very addictive, i.e. resistant to extinction.
An Extinction schedule (Ext) is a special type of non-intermittent reinforcement schedule, in which no reinforcer is given, or reinforcer is discontinued, leading to a progressive decline of the previously reinforced response.
How fast complete extinction happens depends partially on the reinforcement schedule used in learning the behavior.
Among the different types of reinforcement schedules, the Variable Ratio Schedule (VR) is the most resistant to extinction whereas the Continuous Schedule is the least5.
Schedules Of Reinforcement And Parenting
Many parents use various types of reinforcement to teach children new behavior, strengthen the desired behavior or try to stop undesired behavior.
A continuous schedule is often the best in teaching a new behavior. Once the response has been learned, intermittent reinforcement can be used to strengthen the learning.
Let’s go back to the potty-training example.
When parents first introduce the concept of potty training, they may give the toddler candy whenever she uses the potty successfully. That is a continuous schedule.
After the child has been using the potty consistently for a few days, the parents would transition to only reward the behavior intermittently using variable schedules.
Reinforcement And Parenting
Sometimes, parents may unknowingly reinforce undesired behavior.
Because such reinforcement is unintended, it is often delivered inconsistently. The inconsistency serves as a type of variable reinforcement schedule, leading to a learned behavior that is hard to stop even after the parents have stopped applying the reinforcement.
When a toddler throws a tantrum in the store, parents usually refuse to give in. But once in a while, if they’re tired or in a hurry, they may decide to buy the candy, believing they will do it just that one time.
But from the child’s perspective, such concession is a reinforcer that encourages tantrum-throwing. Because the reinforcement (candy buying) is delivered at a variable schedule, the toddler ends up throwing fit regularly for the next give-in.
This is one reason why consistency is important in disciplining children.
Related: Discipline And Punishment
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- 2.DeRusso AL. Instrumental uncertainty as a determinant of behavior under interval schedules of reinforcement. Front Integr Neurosci. 2010. doi:10.3389/fnint.2010.00017
- 3.Schoenfeld W, Cumming W, Hearst E. ON THE CLASSIFICATION OF REINFORCEMENT SCHEDULES. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1956;42(8):563-570. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16589906.
- 4.Dixon MR, Hayes LJ, Aban IB. Examining the Roles of Rule Following, Reinforcement, and Preexperimental Histories on Risk-Taking Behavior. Psychol Rec. October 2000:687-704. doi:10.1007/bf03395378
- 5.Azrin NH, Lindsley OR. The reinforcement of cooperation between children. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 1956:100-102. doi:10.1037/h0042490