We all have habits that we would like to see people continue, and habits that we would like to see people stop. By “people,” I mean friends, family members, kids, or even ourselves. How can we get someone to stop throwing their trash in the recycling, or to keep going to the gym with you?
Psychologists have been trying to answer these questions for years. One of the more famous “answers” is operant conditioning, or using punishments and reinforcements to influence behavior. In this video, we are going to be focusing on reinforcement, but not just any reinforcement - positive reinforcement. (Yes, there is a negative reinforcement, too.) I’ll let you know what positive reinforcement is, whether it works, and reinforcement schedules that psychologists have developed to make reinforcement more effective.
About Operant Conditioning
Before getting into these definitions, I want you to know where all of these terms came from. In the late 1930s, American psychologist BF Skinner introduced the world to operant conditioning. Unlike classical conditioning (made famous by Pavlov’s dog experiments,) operant conditioning looks at the ways that people can influence voluntary behaviors. BF Skinner believed that this could be done by using both reinforcements and punishments to increase the likelihood of some behaviors and decrease the likelihood of others.
Of course, behavior isn’t always that simple. BF Skinner wanted to dig deeper into the motivations that lead people to perform certain behaviors and what could motivate them to curb other ones. In addition to the idea of positive and negative reinforcement, he also examined different schedules and how they affected the likelihood that a behavior would be performed again. We will get to the schedules in a minute; first, let’s talk about what positive reinforcement is and what it looks like in everyday life.
What is Positive Reinforcement?
Positive Reinforcement is when you add a stimulus to help increase a behavior. For example, if you give a child a piece of candy every time they clean their room, you will be incentivizing them in a way to increase that behavior.
Let’s start by discussing what positive reinforcement is. Reinforcements are used to increase the likelihood of a behavior happening again. Positive reinforcement occurs when a stimulus is added to a situation in order to make the behavior happen again. This is the opposite of negative reinforcement, in which a stimulus is removed in order to increase the likelihood of a behavior happening again. The stimulus in positive reinforcement is usually a welcomed stimulus, like money, toys, or a sweet treat. The stimulus in negative reinforcement, when taken away, feels like a relief. Maybe the reinforcement is no longer having to do chores or the silence after an alarm is turned off.
For now, let’s focus on positive reinforcement, and all of the responses that could be added to someone’s experience after they perform a certain behavior.
Examples of Positive Reinforcement
These are all examples of positive reinforcement that you might have witnessed or experienced:
- Paychecks are regularly given to employees who show up to work and do their job.
- A parent gives their child a dollar for cleaning their room.
- Every time a customer buys nine coffees, they get the tenth one for free.
- An app tells you “good job!” after you have recorded a workout.
- A teacher gives their student a sticker every time they ace their test.
- You give your dog a treat every time they “sit” on command.
Continuous vs. Partial Reinforcement
There are a few ways to approach positive reinforcement. You can either offer continuous reinforcement or partial reinforcement. Most likely, you have experienced giving or receiving reinforcement through both of these schedules.
Continuous reinforcement is a process in which a person or animal is given reinforcement every time they complete a behavior. This means that your dog gets a treat every time they “sit” on command. Your app says “good job” every time you finish a workout, without fail. Psychologists have found that this is the best way to introduce a person or animal to a new behavior. Continuous reinforcement establishes the “way things work.”
Partial reinforcement, on the other hand, is a process in which the person or animal is given their reinforcement sometimes. A parent may not have ice cream in the fridge every time their child cleans their room. A coffee shop can’t afford to give out a free coffee every time their customers buy one. Partial reinforcement, while sometimes random and other times on a strict schedule, is less effective than continuous reinforcement but can still get the job done.
Let’s break down partial reinforcement further. There are four different “schedules” that can be used to give out positive reinforcement:
These different schedules have a different level of effectiveness.
Schedules are based on both the consistency of when the reward is delivered and how soon the reinforcement is delivered. In a fixed-ratio schedule, a person or animal is consistently given reinforcement after they have performed a behavior a certain amount of times. They are not given reinforcement every time, but they know that they will always get the stimulus after the fourth, fifth, or tenth time they perform the behavior.
For example, the coffee shop that gives out a free coffee after nine coffees have been purchased is on a fixed-ratio schedule. The customer knows that after that ninth coffee, they will get one for free.
This is one of the most effective schedules to use. While the person performing the behavior may not jump back into the behavior immediately after the reinforcement is distributed, they will pick things back up once they know they are getting closer to getting their “prize.” You are more likely to stop by the coffee shop in the morning if you know you only have two coffees to go before your free one, right?
But what if you didn’t know how many coffees you needed to buy before you qualified for a free one? This is a variable-ratio schedule. The reinforcement is distributed immediately after the behavior is performed a certain number of times, but those times vary. Let’s say you give your dog a treat after they “sit” on command five times. Then, you don’t give them another treat until they “sit” on command ten times. After that, you don’t give them another treat until they “sit” on command three times. While this may seem chaotic, it’s actually a very effective form of positive reinforcement.
Can you think of the most well-known, even addictive example of a variable-ratio schedule? Here’s a hint: you’ll hit the jackpot if you get the right answer. That’s right! Slot machines are one of the best examples of this positive reinforcement schedule. You can’t guarantee when you'll win the jackpot, but you know if you sit down long enough and keep playing, you eventually will. This is why casinos bring in so much money. People are willing to give up a lot of time and cash in order to get that positive reinforcement.
Schedules may also be determined by time, rather than the occurrence of the behavior. This is called a “fixed-interval” schedule. There are two ways to look at this. One is by examining how paychecks are distributed. People get paychecks for a job once a month or once every two weeks. If the person worked during that time, they receive their paycheck. This is certainly a motivating reason to show up to work!
But experiments with animals may not involve paychecks or week-long periods between reinforcements. Instead, an animal in a lab may receive a treat every 10 minutes if they press on a lever. Every 10 minutes, that treat will be distributed, but only if the behavior is performed. At some point, during that time, the animal will find the motivation to press on the lever.
There are some drawbacks with this reinforcement schedule. The animal may only be encouraged to perform the behavior at the nine-minute mark, rather than immediately after receiving their reinforcement. If you told your child that they could play video games on Sunday as long as they did their chores, the child may only be motivated to speed through the chores on Saturday night. Still, the behavior gets done.
The last reinforcement schedule is a variable-interval schedule. This is similar to the fixed-interval schedule, although the amount of time that has gone by will vary every time. One week, you may tell your child that they can play video games on Sunday only if their room is clean. Next week, that day might be Thursday. Next, it will be Wednesday. The person (or animal) performing the behavior does not know when the reinforcement is coming. Although they may not perform the behavior every day immediately, they will eventually develop a habit of performing that behavior.
Another example of a variable-interval schedule is a “surprise” evaluation from a manager at work. If you have the right uniform or offer excellent service on the day that the manager evaluates you, you get a free gift card. This schedule keeps people “on their toes.”
Does it Work?
Different schedules may be more or less effective depending on the behavior and the actual reinforcement involved. There is one thing that we do know: using reinforcement is often encouraged over using punishments. Punishments, which can range from taking away a child’s allowance to using a shock collar to spanking, can have negative side effects. Corporal punishment has been banned in many countries after further research on punishments have linked this type of operant conditioning to antisocial or aggressive behavior. If you want to influence another person’s behavior, you are going to have more luck reinforcing their good behavior instead of punishing their bad behavior.