Habits are hard to build. You want to wake up early, save money, or spend time studying instead of playing video games - but you don’t seem to have the motivation to do it on your own. When many people are stuck in this dilemma, they set up some sort of system that will increase the likelihood of them completing the habits (or behavior) that they want to complete.
For some, this looks like enjoying takeout at their favorite restaurant after ten hours of studying. For others, this looks like setting their room up in a certain way so they have to get up and end the blaring sound of their alarm. There are many ways to increase the likelihood of behaviors, as studied by psychologists and tested by individuals, parents schools, companies, and larger organizations.
Psychologists have identified that reinforcement, or a system designed to increase the likelihood of behavior, may run on different schedules. By understanding these schedules, we can better understand how reinforcement works in everyday life and how you can use it to train yourself, train your dog, or even train a child to complete specific behaviors.
What Is Reinforcement?
Behavioral psychologists in the early to mid-20th century identified punishments and reinforcements as a way to influence behavior through operant conditioning. Operant conditioning, unlike classical conditioning, could potentially lead a subject to consciously perform specific behaviors. Lab rats or dogs, for example, could learn to press a button in a cage to receive food as a reinforcement. Punishments discourage behaviors, while reinforcement encourages it.
Reinforcement can be considered “positive” or “negative,” depending on whether a stimulus is added or removed to a situation to encourage behavior. Positive reinforcement occurs when a stimulus is added - like when a candy bar is given to a child after they get an A+ on their test. Negative reinforcement occurs when stimulus is removed. In lab simulations, dogs and other animals were trained to exhibit certain behaviors in order to stop a shock collar from going off or a loud noise from playing in the lab. Negative reinforcement may occur so that a subject can escape bad behavior or actively avoiding a stimulus. Driving under the speed limit to avoid a ticket is one example of actively avoidance. Speed traps set at various intervals of time are a form of reinforcement, even if they do not catch every speeding car on the road.
Continuous vs. Partial Reinforcement
Not every driver who is speeding gets caught because speed traps follow a partial reinforcement schedule. Partial reinforcement schedules only distribute reinforcements after a certain amount of time has gone by or a certain number of behaviors are performed. This is a direct contrast to continuous reinforcement, in which the behavior is reinforced every time it is performed.
Continuous reinforcement sounds like a great option in theory, but it rarely makes sense practically. If you gave your dog a treat every time they listened to your command, they might get sick. If you gave your child ice cream every time they did their homework, they might get sick. If a casino rewarded gamblers with the jackpot every time they sat down at the slot machines or even entered the casino, the casino would go broke.
This is why partial reinforcement schedules have been identified and used. While some of these reinforcement schedules are intuitive, others can be intentionally set with the schedule in mind. Giving out a reward card to customers that allows them to “buy nine ice cream cones, get one free” might feel like a typical deal, but it’s also a classic example of fixed ratio reinforcement.
Schedules of Reinforcement
The following are four schedules of reinforcement. All of them are easy to find in real life - you may be able to think of examples that you have unintentionally used to encourage your behavior one way or another. The four schedules of reinforcement are:
- Fixed ratio reinforcement
- Variable ratio reinforcement
- Fixed interval reinforcement
- Variable interval reinforcement
Fixed Ratio Reinforcement
Fixed ratio reinforcement is a schedule in which the reinforcement is distributed after a set number of responses. For example, if you were to get a $500 bonus for every 10 sales you closed, you would be operating on a fixed-ratio reinforcement schedule. This schedule can be effective for learning new behaviors, but motivation tends to slow after the reinforcement is distributed. Subjects are most likely to perform the behavior when they are really close to getting that reinforcement.
Variable Ratio Reinforcement
A variable ratio reinforcement schedule is similar, but the number of responses isn’t set. Reinforcements are distributed after a random number of responses. Gambling is the most classic example of this type of reinforcement. Maybe you win the jackpot after one turn at the slot machines, or 50, or 500, or 5,000 turns. After you win the jackpot, that number will change. This schedule, as any gambler knows, can be highly effective. A subject may keep completing the behavior over and over again, just waiting for that reinforcement.
Fixed Interval Reinforcement
Fixed interval reinforcement is a schedule in which the reinforcement is distributed after a set interval of time if one response is completed. For example, if you were to give your teenager the keys to the car at 5 p.m. every night, provided they got all of their homework done for the weekend, you would be working on a fixed interval reinforcement schedule. Subjects are likely to perform the behavior closest to the time when the reinforcement is distributed - meaning your teenager is likely to rush through their homework starting at 4:30.
Variable Interval Reinforcement
Variable interval reinforcement also distributes reinforcements after a certain amount of time, but that amount of time varies after each reinforcement is distributed. Often, the reinforcements feel like they are given at “random” intervals. A pop quiz or a surprise visit from the health inspector are both examples of variable interval reinforcements. If the subject has performed the behavior (studying or keeping the restaurant clean) when the time comes, they will receive reinforcement and will, over time, be encouraged to continue performing that behavior.
Which Reinforcement Schedule is Best?
Although continuous reinforcement is considered the best way to teach a new behavior quickly, partial reinforcement can work, too. Just think about gambling. Even if you are not a big gambler yourself, you may know someone who sits at the slot machines for hours, waiting for that jackpot to hit. Even if they don’t win something one day, they will go back to the casino later hoping for big winnings.
The effectiveness of reinforcement schedules often varies, and heavily depends on the desired behavior and the reinforcement that is distributed. You might find yourself highly motivated to buy that ninth ice cream in order to get a free one, but once that reinfrorcement is delivered, you might find your motivation dip. This pattern is confirmed by psychologists who have studied all reinforcement schedules.
The behavior and reinforcement also impact your decision-making. Buying nine ice creams to get one free sounds like a good deal, but buying 99 ice creams to get one free isn’t motivating at all. Even if you do love ice cream, buying 99 just to get one free isn’t the best trade-off.
I mention this because you can use reinforcement schedules to motivate yourself and others, but you have to weigh the “costs” and “benefits” that come with using schedules of reinforcement. Is the big candy bar that you will get on Fridays worth the effort of packing your lunch every day for work? Is a trip to the movies every now and again worth it if you make your bed every day? Consider all of this and your reinforcement schedule before setting up a system.