Differential Reinforcement (Definition + Examples)

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Practical Psychology
Courtney Beatey
Reviewed by:
Courtney Beatey, B.Ed

How do you get a child to stop performing a negative behavior? Maybe your child is kicking, running, eating too fast, or doing something else they aren’t supposed to do. Punishment isn’t working - in fact, it’s causing adverse effects that you would prefer to eliminate. What if you could use reinforcement to reduce bad behaviors? ABA therapists say you can: differential reinforcement can reduce bad behaviors and encourage better ones. 

This page will review the different differential reinforcement types for ABA therapy. If you want to study positive or negative reinforcement as it applies to general behaviorism and operant conditioning, check out this page. Differential reinforcement is not a product of B.F. Skinner, but has made a resurgence in recent years as it has been applied to ABA therapy.

What Is Differential Reinforcement?

Differential reinforcement is a reinforcement that encourages alternative behaviors to address problematic ones. Today, it is most commonly used in Applied Behavior Analysis. There are multiple differential reinforcement schedules with which you can correct a child’s behavior or offer them alternatives. 

Differential reinforcement was not always accepted in the history of behaviorism and reinforcement. “A Differential Association-Reinforcement Theory of Criminal Behavior” was published in the 1960s, when behaviorism was in its heyday, but it didn’t catch on as much as generally positive and negative reinforcement did. As ABA has re-introduced concepts of reinforcement, and differential reinforcement has been directed to children rather than violent criminals, it has seen a surge in popularity. 

What Is Reinforcement? 

Reinforcement is any “reward or relief” tied to a specific behavior. By using reinforcements, you can encourage the performance of that behavior. People may use “positive reinforcement,” like giving a child a toy, or “negative reinforcement,” like removing a shock collar from a dog, to encourage certain behaviors. 

In ABA, differential reinforcement doesn’t just encourage a behavior - it encourages behavior in place of a negative behavior. Rather than punishing the child for bad behavior, it encourages the child to redirect and choose a more positive or acceptable behavior. 

What Is ABA Therapy? 

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a therapeutic approach steeped in the principles of behaviorism, predominantly utilized to enhance positive behaviors in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and those with special needs. Originating from B.F. Skinner's theories on behaviorism and ABA have evolved to focus not just on observable behaviors but also consider the environment in which these behaviors occur and the impact of said environment.

While Skinner's ideas were primarily grounded in balancing punishments and reinforcements to modify behavior, ABA therapy has morphed slightly from its origins, emphasizing reinforcement strategies to foster a more positive and encouraging environment for behavior change. The belief is rooted in the understanding that positive reinforcement can significantly impact and alter behavior more effectively and ethically than punishment. The application of ABA extends from developing basic skills in children, like listening and looking, to more complex skills, such as reading and conversing, and is utilized in varied settings, including schools, homes, and organizations.

Types of Differential Reinforcement (Reinforcement Schedules) 

Differential Reinforcement presents a nuanced approach to managing behaviors by establishing schedules that reward alternative or modified forms of a particular behavior, aiming at minimizing or substituting an undesired action. This reinforcement methodology is meticulously crafted, considering the specific behaviors to be altered and the strategic application of reinforcements. Each schedule under differential reinforcement is developed with an understanding of the behavior it aims to address and diversifies the reinforcement tactics based on the target behavior’s nature and the individual's unique needs.

Differential reinforcement schedules are outlined as follows:

  • DRA - Alternative
  • DRO - Other
  • DRI - Incompatible
  • DRD - Diminishing Rates
  • DRL - Low Rates 
  • DRH - High Rates 

DRA - Alternative 

DRA takes place when a child is reinforced for performing an alternative behavior. Let’s say a child constantly picks their nose, and the parent wants to end that behavior. The parent can reinforce the child when they perform “other behaviors,” like playing with a fidget cube or putting their hands in their pockets. 

There are different “alternative” behaviors, so ABA therapists recognize two “sub-types” of the DRA reinforcement schedule: DRO and DRI. 

DRO - Other

DRO is a type of DRA schedule that involves an “other” behavior. In the example regarding nose-picking, a parent may reinforce a child picking up the fidget cube instead of picking their nose. The child makes the choice to perform the other behavior and receives reinforcement.

Is DRO a Punishment? 

Some psychologists and ABA therapists argue that DRO is a punishment rather than a reinforcement. This debate was discussed on a Reddit post about the specifics of DRA and DRO. Here’s what one commenter had to say on DRO’s status as a reinforcement: 

“DRO is not a punishment. The goal is to reduce behavior by not reinforcing them if they do occur addressed by function, of course. DRO contingencies including the reinforcement schedule are in place in the environment before the behavior starts, therefore no change in the environment occurs as a consequence of the behavior. Positive and negative Punishment are consequence procedures. DRO and extinction are in effect in the antecedent. Extinction is not a punishment procedure. Extinction is in the lack of reinforcement of a behavior. There is nothing added or subtracted in the environment when the problem behavior occurs. I hope this makes sense.” 

(If you are curious about how ABA works, the ABA subreddit is a great resource!) 

DRI - Incompatible 

DRI defines what type of “alternative” behavior is performed. If the preferred behavior is incompatible with the negative one, the child will receive reinforcement through the DRI schedule. A child cannot pick their nose and put their hands in their pockets simultaneously. If a parent reinforces that behavior, they follow the DRI schedule. 

DRD - Diminishing Rates

Maybe a child is performing a behavior excessively. For example, if they are handed a box of cookies, they eat every cookie in front of them. A parent may not want to discourage cookie-eating completely, but they want their child only to eat one cookie at a time. If the child only eats one cookie in one sitting, they will receive reinforcement. 

DRL - Low Rates

DRL is similar to DRD in that fixed-interval reinforcement is similar to fixed-ratio. Maybe your child doesn’t eat a whole box of cookies in one sitting, but they do reach for a snack or perform a similar behavior once every five minutes. You want to increase the amount of time between the behaviors. DRL might start by reinforcing the child if they only perform the behavior once every seven minutes. Once established, you reinforce the child if they only perform the behavior once every ten minutes. So on and so forth. The child will still perform the behavior, but not as often as they used to. 

DRH - High Rates 

DRH has the opposite goal of DRL. If a child performs a behavior infrequently, a parent or teacher can reinforce it as it is performed more often. 

Matching The Behavior to the Reinforcement 

How do you know what type of reinforcement to provide a child who performs certain behaviors? The answer will depend on the behavior and how the child approaches it. Some parents or teachers may use a much more significant reinforcement when the child does an action independently rather than with the parent or teacher’s asking. Here’s how this might work: 

A parent wants their child to stop picking their nose, which they frequently do when their hands are free. Instead, the parent encourages the child to pick up their fidget cube and play with it. The first few times, the parent gently corrects the child: “Go get your fidget cube.” When the child does this, the parent gives them a hug. 

When the parent sees the child go for the fidget cube independently, they increase the reinforcement. The parent brings the child to the family dog, who smothers the child in kisses that the child loves. This is just one example, but it shows how different reinforcements can encourage different “levels” of behaviors. 

This difference is also described as contingent reinforcement vs. differential reinforcement. 

Should ABA Therapy and Differential Reinforcement Be Used on Autistic Children? 

ABA therapy is popular, but it is also controversial. Critics of the approach argue that punishment and repetition do more harm than good when shaping a child’s behavior. Differential reinforcement offers an alternative to punishment, but repetition is still required for the behavior to stick (or to “unstick.”) If you are considering using ABA therapy with your children, reach out to support groups, your primary doctor, and the teachers at school for further opinions on how this approach may affect your child. All children are different, and differential reinforcement schedules may affect each child differently.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2022, November). Differential Reinforcement (Definition + Examples). Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/differential-reinforcement/.

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