Operant conditioning uses reinforcements and punishments to encourage conscious behavior one way or another. But psychologists know that not all reinforcements work the same way. The reinforcement itself, as well as the reinforcement schedule, makes a difference in whether the behavior is encouraged and learned. By understanding the fixed-ratio reinforcement and other reinforcement schedules, you will be able to make better decisions for yourself and others about behavioral changes or sticking to habits.
What Is Operant Conditioning?
On some farms, workers are paid a certain amount of dollars for every basket they fill with fruit, vegetables, or flowers. If a farmworker fills one basket, they receive $20. If they fill ten baskets, that number jumps to $200. Every day, they leave with some amount of money – but that amount depends on how much work they did.
On other farms, workers are paid a salary. Every two weeks, so long as the workers showed up for their shifts, they receive the same paycheck. It doesn’t matter how much was done within the workday – they just had to put in the right amount of hours. The farmworker knows how much they are going to take home, every two weeks.
These approaches may sound familiar to you, whether or not you worked on a farm. Plenty of jobs use a similar system for paying their employees. For some, this is just “the way things are done,” or a seemingly intuitive approach for encouraging people to show up to work. For psychologists, this is operant conditioning at work. Employers want to encourage their employees to show up to work or pick a certain amount of fruit, so they reward (or reinforce) this behavior with money.
What is Fixed Ratio Reinforcement?
Fixed-ratio reinforcement is a schedule in which reinforcement is given out to a subject after a set number of responses. The “subject” is the person who is performing the behavior. Reinforcement may not be positive; they’re something added to a situation that encourages the subject to perform a behavior.
Positive reinforcements are something like a paycheck – the subject is given money to encourage them to come to work. Negative reinforcement is the removal of a stimulus that encourages the subject to behave a certain way.
For example, you may set an alarm in the morning to encourage you to wake up. If you put that alarm clock on the other side of the room, you have to get up in order to turn off the alarm. The removal of the blaring alarm will encourage you to wake up in the mornings.
Now, if you set an alarm every morning, you aren’t operating on a fixed-ratio reinforcement schedule. If reinforcement is used every time you perform a behavior (like every time you go to sleep,) the subject is acting on a continuous reinforcement schedule. Fixed-ratio reinforcement is a partial reinforcement schedule. Subjects are not rewarded every time they perform a behavior – just after they have performed the behavior a certain number of times.
Examples of Fixed Ratio Reinforcement
Think back to the two examples I shared earlier. Which version of paying farmworkers is an example of a fixed-ratio reinforcement schedule? If you guessed the first example, where workers are paid per basket, you’re right! The response that employers are encouraging is picking fruits. Once the “subject” has performed the response enough times to fill up a basket, they receive their reinforcement.
Let’s look at another example of a fixed-ratio reinforcement schedule. When was the last time that you used a reward card at a coffee shop or a retail store? These rewards cards might offer a deal like, “Buy nine coffees, get one free,” or “get $5 in rewards after you have spent $25.” You can perform this behavior (spending money or buying specific products) at any time, but once you have done it a certain number of times, you get your reward.
Here’s another example. You are trying to force yourself to pack your lunch every day instead of buying food at the nearby restaurant. In order to stick to this habit, you set up a reward system for yourself. Every fifth lunch that you pack, you add a big chocolate bar as a reward.
Other Schedules of Reinforcement
As you were listening to that last example, you might find yourself thinking of an alternative way to reinforce your behavior. You might put yourself on a different schedule: for example, if you packed your lunch three times that week, you get the big chocolate bar on Friday. This is an intuitive way of reinforcing this behavior, but it’s not on a fixed-ratio reinforcement schedule. Instead, this is a fixed-variable reinforcement schedule.
In addition to a fixed-ratio reinforcement schedule, psychologists have identified Fixed Interval, Variable Interval, and Variable Ratio schedules. You can learn more about these schedules in upcoming videos.
Does Fixed Ratio Reinforcement Work?
How does fixed ratio reinforcement stack up to other types of reinforcement? Psychologists have found that although this schedule does encourage behaviors, there is a lag in motivation once the reinforcement is distributed. Think about it this way. When you’ve only bought one coffee and have eight more to go before you buy a free one, you’re probably not rushing to buy another coffee. But if you have just one more coffee to buy before you get a free one, you are more likely to go out of your way and visit that coffee shop.
The effectiveness will also depend on the schedule and reinforcement itself. Getting a free coffee after buying nine seems reasonable, but no one is going to get excited about getting a free coffee after buying forty-nine. Depending on the size of the basket at the farm, farmworkers may be more or less encouraged to fill up their baskets. If the reinforcement is not “worth” the effort to perform the behavior, the reinforcement schedule will be less effective.