The Role and Impact of Reinforcement Schedules in Shaping Behaviour

The Role and Impact of Reinforcement Schedules in Shaping Behaviour


Remember when teachers gave you remarks for good handwriting in school? You used to put great effort into it, and those remarks always motivated and energized you. This is what we call reinforcement in psychology. In our usual day-to-day tasks, whenever someone reinforces us in some way, we are more likely to perform the desired behaviour.

Talking in terms of psychology, we can refer to reinforcement as one of the catalysts that is trying to boost our learning and influence how we behave. People have been using this without even having to study about it since forever. The behaviourism school of thought tried categorising reinforcement into positive and negative reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement involves introducing something that is desired to get something done, like getting to play after completing homework. So the homework is likely to be completed sooner than usual without resistance. Negative reinforcement suggests withdrawing or removing something to improve behaviour. But what do we mean by schedules of reinforcement?

Schedules of reinforcement

Schedules of reinforcement is kind of a concept that tries to see what difference it makes on the likelihood of a behaviour as per the frequency of subjecting the reinforcement to somebody.

How it works?
  • Continues reinforcement: It is when we are trying to reinforce a desired behaviour every time it occurs. It does wonders when we are trying to reach something in a short period for quicker results.
  • Partial reinforcement: It is when we introduce reinforcement only sometimes. It can depend on a variety of patterns such as fixed intervals or variable intervals etc.

Applications of continuous reinforcement

As we read this focus on repetitively reinforcing the behaviour in order to fasten the learning process. Can you think of some daily life examples where we need to fasten the learning or where we make use of this technique? Let me help you recall some of the examples

  • Potty training: when you try to teach your toddler to use the toilet on their own and you praise them each time they do so, they tend to feel a sense of achievement. This makes the behaviour persist, they learn quicker this way.
  • Pet training: when you command your dog to sit or fetch and then you give them a treat, this makes them learn this behaviour of obeying you quicker.
  • Classroom rewards: when your teacher used to give you badges or stars for better performance you were more likely to prepare better.
Limitations and potential issues of continuous reinforcement

It works faster and strengthens the behaviour but it has its loopholes. Like if you are using it to teach something to your toddler, they will likely get habitual to the incentive or the reward and it might reduce the effectiveness of that reward with time. Other than this, there comes a dependency that the behaviour or action will only take place when the reward is attached to it, else it won’t.

Application of partial reinforcement

This tries to reinforce the behaviour only some of the time. It’s proven that this is more effective than continuous reinforcement are you able to point out some examples of partial reinforcement? Let’s help you find some

  • Slot machines: remember the “winner winner, chicken dinner”, you don’t get it all the time but the partial presence of this kept you coming back for more.
  • Texting: This is the best example, especially when you are dating. You tend to wait for a response to the message specifically when the other person is not as actively responding rather occasionally with gaps.
Limitations and potential issues of partial reinforcement

It’s effective and keeps you hooked but its inconsistent nature puts you in confusion, and frustrates you, especially when it’s difficult to understand the pattern. This sort of makes it difficult to make changes in the behaviour at times.

Types of intermittent or partial reinforcement schedules

Intermittent or partial reinforcement schedule is further divided into four types

  • Fixed ratio: this pattern proceeds to deliver reward in a fixed ratio like after a fixed number of responses.
  • Variable ratio: this pattern delivers the reward after an average number of responses but there is no such fixed number.
  • Fixed intervals: this pattern proposes to reward your first response after a particular time interval has elapsed.
  • Variable interval: this pattern introduces the reward for the first response after an irregular time interval and that interval and that interval vary making it unpredictable.

Why do we need to understand reinforcement schedules?

To choose what pattern or technique is effective in which particular context, to make use of it wisely and get the desired outcome, we must be aware of all the patterns, their applications and limitations. It will be quite cost-effective and easier on our end if we customize approach as per the need of the situation. Different patterns or schedules help you in different ways, pushing you to different degrees to keep up with your behaviour or withdraw from an undesired behaviour accordingly. When we choose the appropriate incentive schedule wisely, we increase its effectiveness, the subject is likely to perform better and feel motivated.

We learnt that it is quite effective in promoting or eliminating a particular behaviour by adding something pleasant or removing something pleasant. Further, we read that it also depends on its schedules, i.e. how often do we administer the reward and at what intervals, are those fixed or irregular? It will be quite beneficial if we are aware of all the patterns and schedules and learn how to use them as per context.

References +
  • Basic concepts. (n.d.).
  • Learning, L. (n.d.). Introduction to psychology.
  • Li, P. (2024, April 27). Schedules of Reinforcement (20 examples). Parenting For Brain.
  • OpenStax, & Learning, L. (n.d.). Reinforcement schedules. General Psychology.

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