Different Schedules of Reinforcement

Another important component of operant conditioning is the notion of schedules of reinforcement. How often and when a behavior is reinforced can greatly affect the strength of the behavior and the rate of response. Positive and negative reinforcement can be used, and the goal is always to strengthen behavior and increase the chances of it happening again. Schedules of reinforcement can be broken down into two types:

  1. Continuous reinforcement: Every time a behavior occurs, it is reinforced.
  2. Partial reinforcement: A behavior is reinforced part of the time.

Interestingly, the response that is the result of partial reinforcement is actually more resistant to extinction because these behaviors are learned over time, and not acquired all at once. Partial reinforcement can be further broken down into four schedules:

  1. Fixed-ratio schedules: After a specific number of responses, the response is reinforced. For example, a rat only gets food pellets after pressing the lever every three times.
  2. Variable-ratio schedules: Reinforcement occurs after an unpredictable number of responses. For example, a rat presses the lever several times, but a pellet of food is administered at random and is not based on any sort of fixed schedule.
  3. Fixed-interval schedules: A response is rewarded after an allotted period of time. For example, if a rat presses the lever within a time frame of thirty seconds, it will be given one food pellet. It does not matter how many times the rat presses the lever, because only one pellet will be given during that time frame.
  4. Variable-interval schedules: Reinforcement occurs after an unpredictable amount of time. For example, the rat may be rewarded a pellet every fifteen seconds, and then every ve seconds, and then every forty-ve seconds, etc.

Examples of the four different schedules of reinforcement can be found in everyday life. For instance, a fixed-ratio schedule is commonly found in playing videogames (where the player has to collect a certain number of points or coins to obtain a reward); slot machines exhibit a variable-ratio schedule; having a weekly or biweekly paycheck is an example of a fixed-interval schedule, and when one’s boss comes into the office to check on an individual’s progress at random times, it is an example of a variable-interval schedule. When learning behavior that is new, a fixed-ratio schedule is always best, while a variable-interval schedule is extremely resistant to extinction.

Though behaviorism lost its popularity over time, there is no denying the impact of B. F. Skinner. His operant techniques remain vital to mental health professionals in helping treat clients, and his ideas of reinforcement and punishment are still used in teaching and dog training.