1: Introduction to Learning Theory and Behavioral
2: Classical and Operant Conditioning
3: Reinforcement and Reinforcement Schedules
4: Social Learning Theory
5: Social-Cognitive Theory
The term reinforce means to strengthen, and is
used in psychology to refer to anything stimulus
which strengthens or increases the probability of a
specific response. For example, if you want your dog
to sit on command, you may give him a treat every
time he sits for you. The dog will eventually come
to understand that sitting when told to will result
in a treat. This treat is reinforcing because he
likes it and will result in him sitting when
instructed to do so.
This is a simple description of a reinforcer
(the treat), which increases the response (sitting).
We all apply reinforcers everyday, most of the time
without even realizing we are doing it. You may tell
your child "good job" after he or she
cleans their room; perhaps you tell your partner how
good he or she look when they dress up; or maybe you
got a raise at work after doing a great job on a
project. All of these things increase the
probability that the same response will be repeated.
There are four types of reinforcement: positive,
negative, punishment, and extinction. Well
discuss each of these and give examples.
Reinforcement. The examples above describe
what is referred to as positive reinforcement. Think
of it as adding something in order to increase a
response. For example, adding a treat will increase
the response of sitting; adding praise will increase
the chances of your child cleaning his or her room.
The most common types of positive reinforcement or
praise and rewards, and most of us have experienced
this as both the giver and receiver.
Reinforcement. Think of negative
reinforcement as taking something away in order to
increase a response. Taking away a toy until your
son picks up his room, or withholding payment until
a job is complete are examples of this. Basically,
you want to remove or withhold something of value in
order to increase a certain response or behavior.
Punishment refers to adding something aversive in
order to decrease a behavior. The most common
example of this is disciplining (e.g. spanking) a
child for misbehaving. The reason we do this is
because the child begins to associate being punished
with the negative behavior. The punishment is not
liked and therefore to avoid it, he or she will stop
behaving in that manner.
When you remove something in order to decrease a
behavior, this is called extinction. You are taking
something away so that a response is decreased.
Research has found positive reinforcement is the
most powerful of any of these. Adding a positive to
increase a response not only works better, but
allows both parties to focus on the positive aspects
of the situation. Punishment, when applied
immediately following the negative behavior can be
effective, but results in extinction when it is not
applied consistently. Punishment can also invoke
other negative responses such as anger and
Know that we understand the four types of
reinforcement, we need to understand how and when
these are applied. For example, do we apply the
positive reinforcement every time a child does
something positive? Do we punish a child every time
he does something negative? To answer these
questions, you need to understand the schedules of
Applying one of the four types of reinforcement
every time the behavior occurs (getting a raise
after every successful project or getting spanked
after every negative behavior) is called a
Continuous Schedule. Its continuous because the
application occurs after every project, behavior,
etc. This is the best approach when using
punishment. Inconsistencies in the punishment of
children often results in confusion and resentment.
A problem with this schedule is that we are not
always present when a behavior occurs or may not be
able to apply the punishment.
There are two types of continuous schedules:
Fixed Ratio. A fixed ratio schedule refers to
applying the reinforcement after a specific number
of behaviors. Spanking a child if you have to ask
him three times to clean his room is an example. The
problem is that the child (or anyone for that
matter) will begin to realize that he can get away
with two requests before he has to act. Therefore,
the behavior does not tend to change until right
before the preset number.
Fixed Interval. Applying the reinforcer after
a specific amount of time is referred to as a fixed
interval schedule. An example might be getting a
raise every year and not in between. A major problem
with this schedule is that people tend to improve
their performance right before the time period
expires so as to "look good" when the
review comes around.
When reinforcement is applied on an irregular
basis, they are called variable schedules.
Variable Ratio. This refers to applying a
reinforcer after a variable number of responses.
Variable ratio schedules have been found to work
best under many circumstances and knowing an example
will explain why. Imagine walking into a casino and
heading for the slot machines. After the third coin
you put in, you get two back. Two more and you get
three back. Another five coins and you receive two
more back. How difficult is it to stop playing?
Interval. Reinforcing someone after a variable
amount of time is the final schedule. If you have a
boss who checks your work periodically, you
understand the power of this schedule. Because you
dont know when the next check-up might
come, you have to be working hard at all times in
order to be ready.
sense, the variable schedules are more powerful and
result in more consistent behaviors. This may not be
as true for punishment since consistency in the
application is so important, but for all other types
of reinforcement they tend to result in stronger