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Operant Conditioning: Schedules of Reinforcement

Operant Conditioning: Schedules of Reinforcement

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This lesson will delineate and discuss the various schedules of reinforcement.

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Tutorial

What's Covered

This tutorial will expand on the idea of operant conditioning and discuss schedules of reinforcement. You will learn about:

  1. Schedules of Reinforcement
  2. Fixed Ratio Schedule of Reinforcement
  3. Variable Ratio Schedule of Reinforcement
  4. Fixed and Variable Intervals

1. Schedules of Reinforcement

Recall that operant conditioning explains how learning occurs due to the consequences of behaviors, things like reinforcement and punishment, that make behaviors more or less likely to occur over time. Remember also that learning occurs over time; it's not generally something that's the result of a single instance of a reward or punishment. Just because you get a piece of candy doesn't make you absolutely likely to learn and to do that behavior again later.

When and how a behavior is rewarded can determine whether it's learned as well as the strength of that learning. So a schedule of reinforcement means a plan that determines when a behavior will be reinforced and when it won't be reinforced.

Term to Know

Schedule of Reinforcement

A pattern or timetable that determines when a behavior will be reinforced and when it will not.

There are several different kinds of schedules of reinforcement under operative conditioning. They fall under two basic categories:

1. The first one is continuous reinforcement. This means giving a reinforcement every time a behavior is performed. 

ExampleEvery time you a child performs a behavior you're hoping for, you give them a piece of candy. 

There are some pros and cons of this schedule.

  •  It is useful particularly when a behavior is first being learned. 
  • It's not necessarily realistic in the long term because you don't have an unlimited supply of candy.
  • Outside or extrinsic rewards aren't necessarily continually rewarding in the same way. Eventually a child might get tired of the candy or they might literally get sick. 

2. The second one is partial reinforcement, which tends to produce more resistance to extinction. This means that the learning is less likely to go away since a subject is less likely to get tired or satiated by the reinforcer. 

There are four basic types of partial reinforcement that are used.


2. Fixed Ratio Schedule of Reinforcement

The first kind of partial reinforcement is fixed ratio reinforcement, or FR.

Term to Know

Fixed Ratio (FR)

Reinforcement is delivered based on the same number of responses.

In FR, a reinforcer is given after a specific, predetermined number of correct behaviors

ExampleEvery third or fourth time a child performs the behavior you want, you give them a reward. 

And this generally leads to some very quick, consistent responses. It's something that's easy for the learner to catch onto. 

ExampleA rat that's placed within a box with a button that dispenses a treat will press the button many times, one after the other. It will continually press the button because it realizes that after a certain number of times it will get that reward. 


3. Variable Ratio Schedule of Reinforcement

In contrast, the second type of partial reinforcement is the variable ratio schedule of reinforcement.

Term to Know

Variable Ratio (VR)

Reinforcement is delivered based on a changing number of responses.

In VR, a reinforcement is given after a variable, unpredictable number of correct behaviors.

Usually, reinforcements are given within a kind of range, such as between every two to five times on average. The subject won't know each time they perform the behavior whether or not they will receive the reward. 

This generally leads to very high, consistent levels of responses. 

IN CONTEXT

Think of this kind of like gambling or like a slot machine, where you're very likely to continue playing the slot machine because you don't know when it's going to pay off.

4. Fixed and Variable Intervals

In addition to ratios, there are also intervals:

1. A fixed interval is when a reinforcer is given after a specific amount of time has passed since the last reinforcement.

Term to Know

Fixed Interval (FI)

Reinforcement is delivered based on the same amount of time elapsed.

Example After 30 seconds have passed from the last time the subject performed the behavior, they'll be able to get a reward. 

This leads to some very slow responses from the subject. Generally, there will be more response towards the end of the interval, because the subject begins to predict exactly when they can get it. Thus they only perform the behavior when they know they're going to receive a reinforcement.

FI is fairly rare to use. 

ExampleOne example might be getting paid a salary at the end of every week. But you don't necessarily work harder at the end of the week before you get paid. Instead, you generally tend to work harder at the beginning of the week. 

2. A variable interval, or VI schedule of reinforcement, is when a reinforcer is given after an unpredictable, variable amount of time has passed since the last reinforcement.

Term to Know

Variable Interval (VI)

Reinforcement is delivered based on a varying amount of time elapsed.

So it might be on average of every 30 seconds, but the subject doesn't realize that, nor does the experimenter generally realize it. 

This generally leads to some very slow, but also very steady responses that don't tend to go away very easily because the subject doesn't realize when they're going to get the reward. So they have to give the behavior at regular intervals because they need to be ready to receive the reinforcement, the thing that they want to get.


Summary

There are two types of schedules of reinforcement, fixed and variable, which describe something that is unpredictable or predictable. Within this, there are ratios, which refer to the number of behaviors, and intervals, which refer to the amount of time. Therefore, there are four types altogether: fixed ratio, variable ratio, fixed interval, and variable interval that describe the kinds of schedules of reinforcement.

Keep up the learning and have a great day!

Source: This work is adapted from Sophia author Erick Taggart.

TERMS TO KNOW
  • Schedule of Reinforcement

    A pattern or timetable that determines when a behavior will be reinforced and when it will not.

  • Fixed Ratio (FR)

    Reinforcement is delivered based on the same number of responses.

  • Variable Ratio (VR)

    Reinforcement is delivered based on a changing number of responses.

  • Fixed Interval (FI)

    Reinforcement is delivered based on the same amount of time elapsed.

  • Variable Interval (VI)

    Reinforcement is delivered based on a varying amount of time elapsed.