Schedule of Reinforcement with Examples

What are the Schedules of Reinforcement? This article defines the types of schedules of reinforcement with examples. It helps to improve behavior and develop good habits.

Although getting an apple and getting a grade of “F” seem very different, they are both consequences that can increase the occurrence of certain behaviors. There are two kinds of reinforcements, or consequences—positive and negative—that increase the occurrence of behaviors.

Two types of reinforcements

Positive Reinforcement: A positive reinforcer (e.g., food, money) entails a stimulus that increases the likelihood of future response.

Negative Reinforcement: A negative reinforcer involves the removal of an aversive stimulus to increase the probability of a future response (e.g., a termination of electrical shock or extreme heat). 

Operants comprise a class of behaviors strengthened by a class of consequences or reinforcers.

Schedules of Reinforcement definition

The rule describing the delivery of reinforcement is called a schedule of reinforcement. We shall see that a particular kind of reinforcement schedule tends to produce a particular pattern and rate of performance, and these schedule effects are remarkably reliable. 

              When a given schedule is in force for some time, the pattern of behavior is very predictable. Moreover, if different schedules are in force for different kinds of behavior, the rates and patterns of behavior will reflect the different schedules. And if behavior is occurring at a steady rate and the reinforcement schedule changes, usually the behavior will change in predictable ways.

Example of Schedule

What people call character traits, such as laziness or ambitiousness, are often due to schedules of reinforcement. A worker in one factory is not very productive and is called lazy. A worker in a different factory is very productive and is called ambitious.

But suppose that the two workers are actually the same person. Is it reasonable to say that he is unproductive in one factory because he’s a lazy person, but he is productive in another factory because he’s an ambitious person? Isn’t it more likely that the differences in behavior merely reflect different conditions at the two factories? Often the most important difference affecting behavior is the schedule of reinforcement.

REVIEW Learning is a change in behavior, and that includes changes in the rate and pattern of behavior over time. Behavior rates and patterns are functions of the schedule of reinforcement in effect. There are several kinds of reinforcement schedules, each of which has distinctive effects on behavior.

Continuous Reinforcement

          The simplest of simple schedules is called continuous reinforcement, or CRF. In continuous reinforcement, a behavior is reinforced every time it occurs. If, for example, a rat receives food every time it presses a lever, then lever pressing is on a continuous reinforcement schedule, as is the disk pecking of a pigeon if it receives a bit of grain each time it pecks a disk.       

           Likewise, a child’s behavior is on CRF if she is praised every time she hangs up her coat, and your behavior is on CRF when you operate a vending machine if, each time you insert the requisite amount of money, you receive the item selected. The opposite of CRF is extinction, which can be thought of as a schedule of nonreinforcement.

           Each reinforcement strengthens behavior, so continuous reinforcement leads to very rapid increases in the rate of behavior. It is especially useful, then, when the task is to shape up some new behavior or behavior chain.

You can see that it would be much easier to teach a pigeon to make counter-clockwise turns by reinforcing each successive approximation of the desired behavior than it would be if you were to reinforce successive approximations only occasionally. 

           Although continuous reinforcement typically leads to the most rapid learning of new behavior, it is probably rare in the natural environment. Most behavior is reinforced on some occasions but not others. A parent is not able to praise a child every time she hangs up her coat, and vending machines sometimes take our money and give us nothing in return.

        When reinforcement occurs on some occasions but not others, the behavior is said to be on an intermittent schedule( Partial Reinforcement). There are many kinds of intermittent schedules (see Ferster & Skinner, 1957), but the most important ones fall into four groups. 

Types of Schedule of Reinforcement 

A fixed-interval schedule of reinforcement:

means that the reinforcer is presented following the first response that occurs after a fixed time interval has elapsed. That interval might be 3 minutes, 5 minutes, or any other fixed period of time.

         The timing of the reinforcement has nothing to do with the number of responses. Whether the rat responds 5  times or 18 times a minute during the fixed time interval, the reinforcer still arrives only after the passage of a given time period and the emission of the correct response.

           Many situations operate in accordance with the fixed-interval reinforcement schedule. If your professor gives a midterm and a final examination, he or she is using a fixed-interval schedule. 

           A job in which your salary is paid once a week or once a month operates on the fixed-interval schedule. You are not paid according to the number of items you produce or the number of sales you make (the number of responses) but by the number of hours, days, or weeks that elapse.

           Skinner’s research showed that the shorter the interval between presentations of the reinforcer, the greater the frequency of response. The response rate declined as the interval between reinforcements lengthened.

           How frequently reinforcers appeared also affected how quickly the response could be extinguished. The response stopped sooner if the rat had been reinforced continuously and the reinforcement was then stopped than if the rat had been reinforced intermittently.

In the fixed-ratio schedule of reinforcement:

reinforcers are given only after the organism has made a specified number of responses. For example, the experimenter could reinforce after every 10th or 20th response.

           In this schedule, unlike the fixed interval schedule, the presentation of reinforcers depends on how often the subject responds. The rat will not receive a food pellet until it emits the required number of responses. This reinforcement schedule brings about a faster rate of responding than does the fixed-interval schedule.

         The higher response rate for the fixed-ratio reinforcement schedule also applies to humans. In a job in which your pay is determined on a piece-rate basis, how much you earn depends on how much you produce. The more items you produce, the higher your pay.

            Your reward is based directly on your response rate. The same is true for a salesperson working on commission. Income depends on the number of products sold; the more sold, the more earned. In contrast, a salesperson on a weekly salary earns the same amount each week regardless of the number of items sold.

          But everyday life doesn’t always permit a fixed-interval or fixed-ratio reinforcement schedule. Sometimes reinforcers are presented on a variable basis.

In the variable-interval schedule of reinforcement: 

the reinforcer might appear after 2 hours in the first instance, after 1 1⁄2 hours the next time, and after 2 hours and 15 minutes the third time. A person who spends the day fishing might be rewarded, if at all, on a variable-interval basis. The reinforcement schedule is determined by the random appearance of fish nibbling at the bait.

A variable-ratio schedule of reinforcement is based on an average number of responses between reinforcers, but there is great variability around that average.

         Skinner found that the variable-ratio schedule is effective in bringing about high and stable response rates, as the people who operate gambling casinos can happily attest. Slot machines, roulette wheels, horse races, and the state lottery games pay on a variable-ratio reinforcement schedule, an extremely effective means of controlling behavior.

Variable reinforcement schedules result in enduring response behaviors that tend to resist extinction. Most everyday learning occurs as a result of variable-interval or variable-ratio reinforcement schedules.

         Skinner’s research on reinforcement schedules provides an effective technique for controlling, modifying, and shaping behavior. If you are in charge of rats, salespeople, or assembly-line workers, or are trying to train your pet or your child, these operant conditioning techniques can be useful in bringing about the behaviors you desire. 

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Plotnik, R., & Kouyoumdjian, H. (2008). Introduction to psychology. 8th ed. Australia ; Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth.

Schultz, D.P., & Schultz, S.E.(2005).Theories of personality. 8th ed. Australia Thomson/Wadsworth.


2 thoughts on “Schedule of Reinforcement with Examples”

  1. The post was really informative and helpful…..can you plz guide being more practical day to day problem based explanation

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