The Power of Alternative Reinforcement

timeoutThere are, in principle, several ways to get rid of unwanted behavior: you can extinguish it, punish it, or reinforce some other behavior in its place. In my experience, it seems that the first thing many people think of as a means of eliminating such behavior is punishment. Sometimes the punishment is physical, but much more often it is in the form of what we call negative punishment, for example, using a timeout (“go stand in the corner for five minutes” or “you, out of the pool for ten minutes”) dependent on the offensive behavior.  One of the things about punishment that makes it so widely used is that, when it works, its effects are immediate – introduce it and behavior changes. Put another way, using punishment reinforces the behavior of punishing.

Extinction is the procedure of discontinuing reinforcement of the response. Extinction is effective in reducing behavior, but, unlike punishment, its effects are not immediate. It takes time for a response to extinguish. Plus there often is a good chance with both extinction and punishment that some other undesirable behavior will fill the void as the targeted response is being eliminated.

child in timeoutAnother technique for eliminating behavior is closely related to extinction in that it does not reinforce the inappropriate behavior, but instead reinforcement depends on the non-occurrence of the problem behavior. It is called the differential reinforcement of other behavior – DRO, as it is often abbreviated. It, like extinction, requires that the problem behavior be extinguished to the point that it does not occur for some pre-specified time period (e.g., 1 minute) and then the reinforcer is delivered.  Its problem is the same as extinction and punishment in that the behavior that fills the void is unspecified.

child learningWhat is a caregiver to do? There is a need to both eliminate undesirable behavior, but also to substitute something “better” in its place, some alternative behavior that is more useful to both the person engaging in the undesirable behavior and the caregiver.  Many behavior analysts thus support the idea of simultaneously or concurrently extinguishing the inappropriate behavior while reinforcing a more prosocial alternative. This approach in essence kills the proverbial two birds with one stone. It not only removes the problem behavior, but also reinforces a more appropriate response. All the better if the two are mutually incompatible (e.g., a child cannot be fighting with her brother while at the same time playing cooperatively with him or a child in the classroom cannot be disruptive while focused on doing the assigned lessons).

There is a theory behind the power of alternative reinforcement. It is called the “matching law” and it basically says that living beings distribute their responses in proportion to the reinforcers available for each of those responses. It first was demonstrated with pigeons choosing between two responses that were reinforced at different frequencies (e.g., an average of one time per minute versus one time every three minutes). Alternative reinforcement procedures involve two responses also: the inappropriate behavior and an appropriate alternative. The former is not reinforced and the latter is.

Alternative reinforcement accomplishes the same thing as punishment in that it eliminates the inappropriate behavior quickly (because there is an appropriate-behavior alternative that can be reinforced) and, unlike simple extinction or DRO, does not leave a behavioral vacuum that can be filled by another inappropriate behavior because it also specifies the new response to be reinforced. 

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.