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Schedules of Reinforcement

There are five general patterns in which reinforcers (or punishers) are delivered.  We refer to these patterns as schedules - and there are five schedules that are used to influence your behavior.


The first schedule is continuous - you are reinforced or punished every single time the behavior occurs. For example:
  • Every time the puppy sits on cue it gets a treat
  • Every time you put a dollar into the vending machine you get a candy bar
  • Every time the puppy bites your finger it gets startled with a loud "no!"
  • Every time you touch a hot stove you get a burn
Continuous schedules are typically used in operant conditioning when you are establishing a new behavior… if I want to train a puppy to sit I want to make sure that it learns that sitting on command causes reinforcement to arrive.  Similarly, if I want a puppy to learn not to bite my hand I might want to make sure that some mild punisher (e.g., a firm "no!") occurs every single time.  Because the consequence is perfectly predictable and consistent it is easy to learn exactly what behavior earns the reinforcer or punisher.

We will get more into extinction in a later section but it is helpful to make one point here - behaviors that are continuously reinforced are the most likely to stop as soon as the reinforcement goes away.  For example, if you put a dollar into the vending machine and nothing comes out you are unlikely to keep feeding it dollars.  You quickly learn that the behavior is no longer being reinforced, so why bother?  Similarly, if all of a sudden you completely stop giving treats to the puppy for sitting it will quickly realize that the behavior no longer leads to reinforcement.


A partial schedule, on the other hand, involves a pattern in which the consequences occur only part of the time.  There are four partial schedules of reinforcement and each result in a different pattern of behavior
  • Fixed ratio
  • Fixed interval
  • Variable ratio
  • Variable interval
First, watch Learning: Schedules of Reinforcement (http://youtu.be/GLx5yl0sxeM).

Next, see how Skinner use the concepts of behavioral psychology to explain behavior in animals and humans in the same way:.  His comments at the end make it clear that from this theoretical perspective behavior is controlled by the environment, not by an internal sense of free will.