In behavioral psychology, reinforcement is a consequence that will strengthen an organism's future behavior whenever that behavior is preceded by a specific antecedent stimulus. This strengthening effect may be measured as a higher frequency of behavior (e.g., pulling a lever more frequently), longer duration (e.g., pulling a lever for longer periods of time), greater magnitude (e.g., pulling a lever with greater force), or shorter latency (e.g., pulling a lever more quickly following the antecedent stimulus).
- Brief history
- Operant conditioning
- Positive reinforcement
- Negative reinforcement
- Reinforcement versus punishment
- Further ideas and concepts
- Primary reinforcers
- Secondary reinforcers
- Other reinforcement terms
- Natural and artificial
- Intermittent reinforcement schedules
- Simple schedules
- Effects of different types of simple schedules
- Compound schedules
- Superimposed schedules
- Concurrent schedules
- Persuasive communication the reinforcement theory
- Mathematical models
- History of the terms
- Nudge theory
- Parent management training
- Psychological manipulation
- Traumatic bonding
Rewarding stimuli, which are associated with "wanting" and "liking" (desire and pleasure, respectively) and appetitive behavior, function as positive reinforcers; the converse statement is also true: positive reinforcers provide a desirable stimulus. Reinforcement does not require an individual to consciously perceive an effect elicited by the stimulus. Thus, reinforcement occurs only if there is an observable strengthening in behavior. However, there is also negative reinforcement, which is characterized by taking away an undesirable stimulus. An ibuprofen is a negative reinforcer because it takes away pain.
In most cases, the term "reinforcement" refers to an enhancement of behavior, but this term is also sometimes used to denote an enhancement of memory; for example, "post-training reinforcement" refers to the provision of a stimulus (such as food) after a learning session in an attempt to increase the retained breadth, detail, and duration of the individual memories or overall memory just formed. The memory-enhancing stimulus can also be one whose effects are directly rather than only indirectly emotional, as with the phenomenon of "flashbulb memory," in which an emotionally highly intense stimulus can incentivize memory of a set of a situation's circumstances well beyond the subset of those circumstances that caused the emotionally significant stimulus, as when a person of appropriate age is able to remember where s/he was and what s/he was doing when s/he learned of the assassination of John F. Kennedy or of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Reinforcement is an important part of operant or instrumental conditioning.
TerminologyMain section: Reinforcement#Operant conditioning
In the behavioral sciences, the terms "positive" and "negative" refer when used in their strict technical sense to the nature of the action performed by the conditioner rather than to the responding operant's evaluation of that action and its consequence(s). "Positive" actions are those that add a factor, be it pleasant or unpleasant, to the environment, whereas "negative" actions are those that remove or withhold from the environment a factor of either type. In turn, the strict sense of "reinforcement" refers only to reward-based conditioning; the introduction of unpleasant factors and the removal or withholding of pleasant factors are instead referred to as "punishment," which when used in its strict sense thus stands in contradistinction to "reinforcement." Thus, "positive reinforcement" refers to the addition of a pleasant factor, "positive punishment" refers to the addition of an unpleasant factor, "negative reinforcement" refers to the removal or withholding of an unpleasant factor, and "negative punishment" refers to the removal or withholding of a pleasant factor.
This usage is at odds with some non-technical usages of the four term combinations, especially in the case of the term "negative reinforcement," which is often used to denote what technical parlance would describe as "positive punishment" in that the non-technical usage interprets "reinforcement" as subsuming both reward and punishment and "negative" as referring to the responding operant's evaluation of the factor being introduced. By contrast, technical parlance would use the term "negative reinforcement" to describe encouragement of a given behavior by creating a scenario in which an unpleasant factor is or will be present but engaging in the behavior results in either escaping from that factor or preventing its occurrence, as in Martin Seligman's experiments involving dogs' learning processes regarding the avoidance of electric shock.
B.F. Skinner was a well-known and influential researcher who articulated many of the theoretical constructs of reinforcement and behaviorism. Skinner defined reinforcers according to the change in response strength (response rate) rather than to more subjective criteria, such as what is pleasurable or valuable to someone. Accordingly, activities, foods or items considered pleasant or enjoyable may not necessarily be reinforcing (because they produce no increase in the response preceding them). Stimuli, settings, and activities only fit the definition of reinforcers if the behavior that immediately precedes the potential reinforcer increases in similar situations in the future; for example, a child who receives a cookie when he or she asks for one. If the frequency of "cookie-requesting behavior" increases, the cookie can be seen as reinforcing "cookie-requesting behavior". If however, "cookie-requesting behavior" does not increase the cookie cannot be considered reinforcing.
The sole criterion that determines if a stimulus is reinforcing is the change in probability of a behavior after administration of that potential reinforcer. Other theories may focus on additional factors such as whether the person expected a behavior to produce a given outcome, but in the behavioral theory, reinforcement is defined by an increased probability of a response.
The study of reinforcement has produced an enormous body of reproducible experimental results. Reinforcement is the central concept and procedure in special education, applied behavior analysis, and the experimental analysis of behavior and is a core concept in some medical and psychopharmacology models, particularly addiction, dependence, and compulsion.
Laboratory research on reinforcement is usually dated from the work of Edward Thorndike, known for his experiments with cats escaping from puzzle boxes. A number of others continued this research, notably B.F. Skinner, who published his seminal work on the topic in The Behavior of Organisms, in 1938, and elaborated this research in many subsequent publications. Notably Skinner argued that positive reinforcement is superior to punishment in shaping behavior. Though punishment may seem just the opposite of reinforcement, Skinner claimed that they differ immensely, saying that positive reinforcement results in lasting behavioral modification (long-term) whereas punishment changes behavior only temporarily (short-term) and has many detrimental side-effects. A great many researchers subsequently expanded our understanding of reinforcement and challenged some of Skinner's conclusions. For example, Azrin and Holz defined punishment as a “consequence of behavior that reduces the future probability of that behavior,” and some studies have shown that positive reinforcement and punishment are equally effective in modifying behavior. Research on the effects of positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement and punishment continue today as those concepts are fundamental to learning theory and apply to many practical applications of that theory.
The term operant conditioning was introduced by B. F. Skinner to indicate that in his experimental paradigm the organism is free to operate on the environment. In this paradigm the experimenter cannot trigger the desirable response; the experimenter waits for the response to occur (to be emitted by the organism) and then a potential reinforcer is delivered. In the classical conditioning paradigm the experimenter triggers (elicits) the desirable response by presenting a reflex eliciting stimulus, the Unconditional Stimulus (UCS), which he pairs (precedes) with a neutral stimulus, the Conditional Stimulus (CS).
Reinforcement is a basic term in operant conditioning. For the punishment aspect of operant conditioning - see punishment (psychology).
Positive reinforcement occurs when a desirable event or stimulus is presented as a consequence of a behavior and the behavior increases. A positive reinforcer is a stimulus event for which the animal will work in order to acquire it. Verbal and physical reward is very useful positive reinforcement
Negative reinforcement occurs when the rate of a behavior increases because an aversive event or stimulus is removed or prevented from happening. A negative reinforcer is a stimulus event for which an organism will work in order to terminate, to escape from, to postpone its occurrence. As opposed to positive reinforcement, verbal and physical punishment may apply in negative reinforcement
Reinforcement versus punishment
Reinforcers serve to increase behaviors whereas punishers serve to decrease behaviors; thus, positive reinforcers are stimuli that the subject will work to attain, and negative reinforcers are stimuli that the subject will work to be rid of or to end. The table below illustrates the adding and subtracting of stimuli (pleasant or aversive) in relation to reinforcement vs. punishment.
Further ideas and concepts
A primary reinforcer, sometimes called an unconditioned reinforcer, is a stimulus that does not require pairing with a different stimulus in order to function as a reinforcer and most likely has obtained this function through the evolution and its role in species' survival. Examples of primary reinforcers include food, water, and sex. Some primary reinforcers, such as certain drugs, may mimic the effects of other primary reinforcers. While these primary reinforcers are fairly stable through life and across individuals, the reinforcing value of different primary reinforcers varies due to multiple factors (e.g., genetics, experience). Thus, one person may prefer one type of food while another avoids it. Or one person may eat lots of food while another eats very little. So even though food is a primary reinforcer for both individuals, the value of food as a reinforcer differs between them.
A secondary reinforcer, sometimes called a conditioned reinforcer, is a stimulus or situation that has acquired its function as a reinforcer after pairing with a stimulus that functions as a reinforcer. This stimulus may be a primary reinforcer or another conditioned reinforcer (such as money). An example of a secondary reinforcer would be the sound from a clicker, as used in clicker training. The sound of the clicker has been associated with praise or treats, and subsequently, the sound of the clicker may function as a reinforcer. Another common example is the sound of people clapping - there is nothing inherently positive about hearing that sound, but we have learned that it is associated with praise and rewards.
When trying to distinguish primary and secondary reinforcers in human examples, use the "caveman test." If the stimulus is something that a caveman would naturally find desirable (e.g., candy) then it is a primary reinforcer. If, on the other hand, the caveman would not react to it (e.g., a dollar bill), it is a secondary reinforcer. As with primary reinforcers, an organism can experience satiation and deprivation with secondary reinforcers.
Other reinforcement terms
Natural and artificial
In his 1967 paper, Arbitrary and Natural Reinforcement, Charles Ferster proposed classifying reinforcement into events that increase frequency of an operant as a natural consequence of the behavior itself, and events that are presumed to affect frequency by their requirement of human mediation, such as in a token economy where subjects are "rewarded" for certain behavior with an arbitrary token of a negotiable value. In 1970, Baer and Wolf created a name for the use of natural reinforcers called "behavior traps". A behavior trap requires only a simple response to enter the trap, yet once entered, the trap cannot be resisted in creating general behavior change. It is the use of a behavioral trap that increases a person's repertoire, by exposing them to the naturally occurring reinforcement of that behavior. Behavior traps have four characteristics:
As can be seen from the above, artificial reinforcement is in fact created to build or develop skills, and to generalize, it is important that either a behavior trap is introduced to "capture" the skill and utilize naturally occurring reinforcement to maintain or increase it. This behavior trap may simply be a social situation that will generally result from a specific behavior once it has met a certain criterion (e.g., if you use edible reinforcers to train a person to say hello and smile at people when they meet them, after that skill has been built up, the natural reinforcer of other people smiling, and having more friendly interactions will naturally reinforce the skill and the edibles can be faded).
Intermittent reinforcement; schedules
Much behavior is not reinforced every time it is emitted, and the pattern of intermittent reinforcement strongly affects how fast an operant response is learned, what its rate is at any given time, and how long it continues when reinforcement ceases. The simplest rules controlling reinforcement are continuous reinforcement, where every response is reinforced, and extinction, where no response is reinforced. Between these extremes, more complex "schedules of reinforcement" specify the rules that determine how and when a response will be followed by a reinforcer.
Specific schedules of reinforcement reliably induce specific patterns of response, irrespective of the species being investigated (including humans in some conditions). However, the quantitative properties of behavior under a given schedule depend on the parameters of the schedule, and sometimes on other, non-schedule factors. The orderliness and predictability of behavior under schedules of reinforcement was evidence for B.F. Skinner's claim that by using operant conditioning he could obtain "control over behavior", in a way that rendered the theoretical disputes of contemporary comparative psychology obsolete. The reliability of schedule control supported the idea that a radical behaviorist experimental analysis of behavior could be the foundation for a psychology that did not refer to mental or cognitive processes. The reliability of schedules also led to the development of applied behavior analysis as a means of controlling or altering behavior.
Many of the simpler possibilities, and some of the more complex ones, were investigated at great length by Skinner using pigeons, but new schedules continue to be defined and investigated.
Simple schedules have a single rule to determine when a single type of reinforcer is delivered for specific response.
Simple schedules are utilized in many differential reinforcement procedures:
Effects of different types of simple schedules
Compound schedules combine two or more different simple schedules in some way using the same reinforcer for the same behavior. There are many possibilities; among those most often used are:
The psychology term superimposed schedules of reinforcement refers to a structure of rewards where two or more simple schedules of reinforcement operate simultaneously. Reinforcers can be positive, negative, or both. An example is a person who comes home after a long day at work. The behavior of opening the front door is rewarded by a big kiss on the lips by the person's spouse and a rip in the pants from the family dog jumping enthusiastically. Another example of superimposed schedules of reinforcement is a pigeon in an experimental cage pecking at a button. The pecks deliver a hopper of grain every 20th peck, and access to water after every 200 pecks.
Superimposed schedules of reinforcement are a type of compound schedule that evolved from the initial work on simple schedules of reinforcement by B.F. Skinner and his colleagues (Skinner and Ferster, 1957). They demonstrated that reinforcers could be delivered on schedules, and further that organisms behaved differently under different schedules. Rather than a reinforcer, such as food or water, being delivered every time as a consequence of some behavior, a reinforcer could be delivered after more than one instance of the behavior. For example, a pigeon may be required to peck a button switch ten times before food appears. This is a "ratio schedule". Also, a reinforcer could be delivered after an interval of time passed following a target behavior. An example is a rat that is given a food pellet immediately following the first response that occurs after two minutes has elapsed since the last lever press. This is called an "interval schedule".
In addition, ratio schedules can deliver reinforcement following fixed or variable number of behaviors by the individual organism. Likewise, interval schedules can deliver reinforcement following fixed or variable intervals of time following a single response by the organism. Individual behaviors tend to generate response rates that differ based upon how the reinforcement schedule is created. Much subsequent research in many labs examined the effects on behaviors of scheduling reinforcers.
If an organism is offered the opportunity to choose between or among two or more simple schedules of reinforcement at the same time, the reinforcement structure is called a "concurrent schedule of reinforcement". Brechner (1974, 1977) introduced the concept of superimposed schedules of reinforcement in an attempt to create a laboratory analogy of social traps, such as when humans overharvest their fisheries or tear down their rainforests. Brechner created a situation where simple reinforcement schedules were superimposed upon each other. In other words, a single response or group of responses by an organism led to multiple consequences. Concurrent schedules of reinforcement can be thought of as "or" schedules, and superimposed schedules of reinforcement can be thought of as "and" schedules. Brechner and Linder (1981) and Brechner (1987) expanded the concept to describe how superimposed schedules and the social trap analogy could be used to analyze the way energy flows through systems.
Superimposed schedules of reinforcement have many real-world applications in addition to generating social traps. Many different human individual and social situations can be created by superimposing simple reinforcement schedules. For example, a human being could have simultaneous tobacco and alcohol addictions. Even more complex situations can be created or simulated by superimposing two or more concurrent schedules. For example, a high school senior could have a choice between going to Stanford University or UCLA, and at the same time have the choice of going into the Army or the Air Force, and simultaneously the choice of taking a job with an internet company or a job with a software company. That is a reinforcement structure of three superimposed concurrent schedules of reinforcement.
Superimposed schedules of reinforcement can create the three classic conflict situations (approach–approach conflict, approach–avoidance conflict, and avoidance–avoidance conflict) described by Kurt Lewin (1935) and can operationalize other Lewinian situations analyzed by his force field analysis. Other examples of the use of superimposed schedules of reinforcement as an analytical tool are its application to the contingencies of rent control (Brechner, 2003) and problem of toxic waste dumping in the Los Angeles County storm drain system (Brechner, 2010).
In operant conditioning, concurrent schedules of reinforcement are schedules of reinforcement that are simultaneously available to an animal subject or human participant, so that the subject or participant can respond on either schedule. For example, in a two-alternative forced choice task, a pigeon in a Skinner box is faced with two pecking keys; pecking responses can be made on either, and food reinforcement might follow a peck on either. The schedules of reinforcement arranged for pecks on the two keys can be different. They may be independent, or they may be linked so that behavior on one key affects the likelihood of reinforcement on the other.
It is not necessary for responses on the two schedules to be physically distinct. In an alternate way of arranging concurrent schedules, introduced by Findley in 1958, both schedules are arranged on a single key or other response device, and the subject can respond on a second key to change between the schedules. In such a "Findley concurrent" procedure, a stimulus (e.g., the color of the main key) signals which schedule is in effect.
Concurrent schedules often induce rapid alternation between the keys. To prevent this, a "changeover delay" is commonly introduced: each schedule is inactivated for a brief period after the subject switches to it.
When both the concurrent schedules are variable intervals, a quantitative relationship known as the matching law is found between relative response rates in the two schedules and the relative reinforcement rates they deliver; this was first observed by R.J. Herrnstein in 1961. Matching law is a rule for instrumental behavior which states that the relative rate of responding on a particular response alternative equals the relative rate of reinforcement for that response (rate of behavior = rate of reinforcement). Animals and humans have a tendency to prefer choice in schedules.
Shaping is reinforcement of successive approximations to a desired instrumental response. In training a rat to press a lever, for example, simply turning toward the lever is reinforced at first. Then, only turning and stepping toward it is reinforced. The outcomes of one set of behaviours starts the shaping process for the next set of behaviours, and the outcomes of that set prepares the shaping process for the next set, and so on. As training progresses, the response reinforced becomes progressively more like the desired behavior; each subsequent behaviour becomes a closer approximation of the final behaviour.
Chaining involves linking discrete behaviors together in a series, such that each result of each behavior is both the reinforcement (or consequence) for the previous behavior, and the stimuli (or antecedent) for the next behavior. There are many ways to teach chaining, such as forward chaining (starting from the first behavior in the chain), backwards chaining (starting from the last behavior) and total task chaining (in which the entire behavior is taught from beginning to end, rather than as a series of steps). An example is opening a locked door. First the key is inserted, then turned, then the door opened.
Forward chaining would teach the subject first to insert the key. Once that task is mastered, they are told to insert the key, and taught to turn it. Once that task is mastered, they are told to perform the first two, then taught to open the door. Backwards chaining would involve the teacher first inserting and turning the key, and the subject then being taught to open the door. Once that is learned, the teacher inserts the key, and the subject is taught to turn it, then opens the door as the next step. Finally, the subject is taught to insert the key, and they turn and open the door. Once the first step is mastered, the entire task has been taught. Total task chaining would involve teaching the entire task as a single series, prompting through all steps. Prompts are faded (reduced) at each step as they are mastered.
Persuasive communication & the reinforcement theory
Persuasion is a form of human interaction. It takes place when one individual expects some particular response from one or more other individuals and deliberately sets out to secure the response through the use of communication. The communicator must realize that different groups have different values.
In instrumental learning situations, which involve operant behavior, the persuasive communicator will present his message and then wait for the receiver to make a correct response. As soon as the receiver makes the response, the communicator will attempt to fix the response by some appropriate reward or reinforcement.
In conditional learning situations, where there is respondent behavior, the communicator presents his message so as to elicit the response he wants from the receiver, and the stimulus that originally served to elicit the response then becomes the reinforcing or rewarding element in conditioning.
A lot of work has been done in building a mathematical model of reinforcement. This model is known as MPR, short for mathematical principles of reinforcement. Peter Killeen has made key discoveries in the field with his research on pigeons.
The standard definition of behavioral reinforcement has been criticized as circular, since it appears to argue that response strength is increased by reinforcement, and defines reinforcement as something that increases response strength (i.e., response strength is increased by things that increase response strength). However, the correct usage of reinforcement is that something is a reinforcer because of its effect on behavior, and not the other way around. It becomes circular if one says that a particular stimulus strengthens behavior because it is a reinforcer, and does not explain why a stimulus is producing that effect on the behavior. Other definitions have been proposed, such as F.D. Sheffield's "consummatory behavior contingent on a response", but these are not broadly used in psychology.
History of the terms
In the 1920s Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov may have been the first to use the word reinforcement with respect to behavior, but (according to Dinsmoor) he used its approximate Russian cognate sparingly, and even then it referred to strengthening an already-learned but weakening response. He did not use it, as it is today, for selecting and strengthening new behaviors. Pavlov's introduction of the word extinction (in Russian) approximates today's psychological use.
In popular use, positive reinforcement is often used as a synonym for reward, with people (not behavior) thus being "reinforced", but this is contrary to the term's consistent technical usage, as it is a dimension of behavior, and not the person, which is strengthened. Negative reinforcement is often used by laypeople and even social scientists outside psychology as a synonym for punishment. This is contrary to modern technical use, but it was B.F. Skinner who first used it this way in his 1938 book. By 1953, however, he followed others in thus employing the word punishment, and he re-cast negative reinforcement for the removal of aversive stimuli.
There are some within the field of behavior analysis who have suggested that the terms "positive" and "negative" constitute an unnecessary distinction in discussing reinforcement as it is often unclear whether stimuli are being removed or presented. For example, Iwata poses the question: "...is a change in temperature more accurately characterized by the presentation of cold (heat) or the removal of heat (cold)?" Thus, reinforcement could be conceptualized as a pre-change condition replaced by a post-change condition that reinforces the behavior that followed the change in stimulus conditions.
Nudge theory (or nudge) is a concept in behavioural science, political theory and economics which argues that positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions to try to achieve non-forced compliance can influence the motives, incentives and decision making of groups and individuals, at least as effectively – if not more effectively – than direct instruction, legislation, or enforcement.
Parent management training
Providing positive reinforcement for appropriate child behaviors is a major focus of parent management training. Typically, parents learn to reward appropriate behavior through social rewards (such as praise, smiles, and hugs) as well as concrete rewards (such as stickers or points towards a larger reward as part of an incentive system created collaboratively with the child). In addition, parents learn to select simple behaviors as an initial focus and reward each of the small steps that their child achieves towards reaching a larger goal (this concept is called "successive approximations").
The concept of praise as a means of behavioral reinforcement is rooted in B.F. Skinner's model of operant conditioning. Through this lens, praise has been viewed as a means of positive reinforcement, wherein an observed behavior is made more likely to occur by contingently praising said behavior. Hundreds of studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of praise in promoting positive behaviors, notably in the study of teacher and parent use of praise on child in promoting improved behavior and academic performance, but also in the study of work performance. Praise has also been demonstrated to reinforce positive behaviors in non-praised adjacent individuals (such as a classmate of the praise recipient) through vicarious reinforcement. Praise may be more or less effective in changing behavior depending on its form, content and delivery. In order for praise to effect positive behavior change, it much be contingent on the positive behavior (i.e., only administered after the targeted behavior is enacted), must specify the particulars of the behavior that is to be reinforced, and must be delivered sincerely and credibly.
Acknowledging the effect of praise as a positive reinforcement strategy, numerous behavioral and cognitive behavioral interventions have incorporated the use of praise in their protocols. The strategic use of praise is recognized as an evidence-based practice in both classroom management and parenting training interventions, though praise is often subsumed in intervention research into a larger category of positive reinforcement, which includes strategies such as strategic attention and behavioral rewards.
Braiker identified the following ways that manipulators control their victims:
Traumatic bonding occurs as the result of ongoing cycles of abuse in which the intermittent reinforcement of reward and punishment creates powerful emotional bonds that are resistant to change.