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Schedules Of Reinforcement – Psychology

Operant conditioning is frequently used in everyday life, e.g. in the classroom and in parenting. Let’s examine the common schedules of reinforcement and how their application affects the results.

woman plays with her dog in a park - fixed ratio

Schedules Of Reinforcement

Operant conditioning is the procedure of learning to increase or decrease voluntary behavior using reinforcement or punishment.

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.

A schedule of reinforcement is a contingency schedule. The reinforcers are only applied 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.

Related: Difference Between Reinforcement And Punishment

Non-intermittent Reinforcement Schedules

Two types of non-intermittent schedules are Continuous Reinforcement Schedule and Extinction.

Continuous Reinforcement

A continuous reinforcement schedule (CRF) presents the reinforcer after every performance of the desired behavior. This schedule reinforce target behavior every single time it occurs, and is the quickest in teaching a new behavior.

dog gives hand to man in training - Continuous reinforcement schedule

Continuous Reinforcement Examples

A continuous reinforcement schedule is often used in animal training. The trainer rewards a dog to teach it new tricks. When the dog does a new trick correctly, its behavior is reinforced every time by a treat.

This schedule also works well with very young children teaching them simple behaviors such as potty training. Toddlers are given candies when they use the potty. Their behavior is reinforced every time they succeed and receive rewards.

Partial Reinforcement Schedule (Intermittent)

Once a new behavior is trained, trainers often turn to another type of reinforcement schedule – partial reinforcement schedule.

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, slow down the response rate right after a reinforcement and then quickly increase 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 every time after reinforcement is delivered and then behavior occurs at a faster rate as the next reinforcement approaches​1​.

Student studies under pressure - Fixed interval reinforcement-schedule

Fixed Interval Example

College students studying for final exams is an 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 during the semester 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-forming​2​.

Student does homework with a smile - Variable interval reinforcement-schedule

Variable Interval Example

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 throughout the year, but they cannot determine when it occurs.

Without knowing the specific schedule, students study regularly throughout the entire time instead of postponing studying 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 rate​3​.

Fixed Ratio Schedule (FR)

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.

Fixed Ratio Example

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 (VR)

A variable ratio schedule delivers reinforcement after a variable number of responses are made.

This schedule produces high and steady response rates.

a red casino slot machine - variable ratio reinforcement

Variable Ratio Example

Gambling at a slot machine is a classic example of a variable ratio reinforcement schedule​4​.

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 and hard to stop.

Partial Reinforcement ScheduleWhen are reinforcers delivered?Response Rate
Fixed intervalAfter fixed time has elapsedSlow right after reinforcement and then speed up until the next reinforcement, forming a scalloped pattern.
Variable intervalAfter variable time has elapsedHigher than fixed interval schedule at a steady rate.
Fixed ratioAfter a fixed number of responsesSmall pause right after reinforcement and then at a steady rate higher than variable interval schedule.
Variable ratioAfter variable number of reponsesHighest and steady

Extinction

An Extinction schedule (Ext) is a special type of non-intermittent reinforcement schedule, in which 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 least​5​.

Reinforcement Schedules in Parenting

Many parents use various types of reinforcement to teach new behavior, strengthen desired behavior or reduce 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.

Reinforcement Schedules Example

Let’s go back to the potty-training example.

When parents first introduce the concept of potty training, they may give the toddler a candy whenever they use 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.


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.

Girl cries mother gives in

Variable Ratio Example in Parenting

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


References

  1. 1.
    Dews PB. Studies on responding under fixed-interval schedules of reinforcement: II. The scalloped pattern of the cumulative record. J Exp Anal Behav. January 1978:67-75. doi:10.1901/jeab.1978.29-67
  2. 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. 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. 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. 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