Reinforcement Schedules and Everyday Life

A reinforcement schedule is a prescription for arranging reinforcers in time and in relation to behavior. “So what,” you may ask? “Why should I care about something so esoteric and seemingly removed from our everyday affairs? After all, aren’t schedules just those things you use to make rats and pigeons work for their dinner?” I know a glazed-over look when I see one, but allow me a few minutes to disabuse you of your sense that schedules are boring and/or irrelevant.

First, everyone loves positive reinforcement. It is central to the work that most of us do in behavior analysis (though, I note in passing, not all behavior analysts are exactly experts in using it. Some, of course, are, but others could benefit from reading Aubrey Daniels’s Bringing out the Best in People). How does positive reinforcement happen? In the case of everyday situations, Person A does or says something in relation to Person B’s behavior which makes Person B more likely to repeat the reinforced action. That’s positive reinforcement, and it has been arranged, albeit informally and perhaps unintentionally, by a schedule of reinforcement. This doing or saying something contingent upon another’s behavior, is the essence of a reinforcement schedule. If you use positive reinforcement, you are by definition delivering it according to a schedule of reinforcement.

Sometimes the reinforcement schedule is very simple indeed: every time you make the response you earn a reinforcer. It’s like the cartoon where the rat is sitting behind the desk and talking on the telephone, presumably to a rat colleague. With his feet on the desk, he says, “Oh not bad, the light comes on, I press the lever, and I get a bit of food.” Reinforcement sometimes is erroneously thought of like this. As having to occur following every response. Sure, you can do this, but you get far more bang for your reinforcement dollar if you arrange it intermittently, that is, deliver it occasionally after a response, rather than following each response. AND when you use such intermittent reinforcement, you will develop more durable behavior. To repeat, it is a well-known fact that behavior maintained by intermittent reinforcement is more resistant to change when reinforcement is removed than is behavior maintained by continuous reinforcement (each response reinforced). (Caveat: intermittent reinforcement works best after a response is well learned, but reinforcing every instance often is useful during the learning period).

The really cool thing about reinforcement schedules is not only that they are everywhere, but each controls a different pattern of behavior. It’s a sort of behavioral smorgasbord – pick the behavior you want and there is a schedule that will produce it. Intermittent reinforcement can be intermittent in different ways. It can occur after a fixed or a variable number of responses or it can occur following the first response after the lapse of a fixed or variable period of time since the last reinforcer. As noted, each of these different ways of arranging (scheduling) reinforcement intermittently produces its own unique pattern of behavior. If you are planning to reinforce only after a fixed number of response instances have occurred, for example, don’t be surprised if the person takes a little break from the task after each reinforcer. Such is the nature of responding of almost every vertebrate species when that responding is reinforced according to this type of schedule (a fixed-ratio schedule).

It shouldn’t be hard to see at this point that reinforcement schedules have everything to do with daily life. Reinforcement is ubiquitous. It is everywhere every day of our lives. Sometimes it is intentional and sometimes it is inadvertent (unintentional). Wherever there is reinforcement, a schedule arranges it.


Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.