Contingent reinforcement is when a positive stimulus is provided following a specific desired behavior. For example, a contingent reinforcement for doing your chores is receiving pocket money.
In some cases, it can also mean the removal of an aversive stimulus following a specific behavior (causing a sensation of relief).
The intention is to make it more likely for the target behavior to be repeated in the future.
Contingent reinforcement is often compared to noncontingent reinforcement:
- Contingent reinforcement: When a behavior reinforcer is provided after a desired behavior is exhibited, e.g. when ateacher provides a reward for students at the end of class if they sit still through a 50-minute lesson.
- Noncontingent reinforcement: When a behavior reinforcer is provided regardless of the actions of the subject, and often prior to the behavior occurring to prevent its occurrence, such as when a teacher gives students 20-minute movement breaks to prevent the likelihood of poor behavior throughout the 50-minute lesson.
Contingent reinforcement has been a valuable tool for improving behavior in a wide range of domains. For instance, in educational contexts, contingent reinforcement has helped students maintain on-task behavior,increased adaptive behavior of disruptive students, and helped children with learning disabilities.
Origins of Contingent Reinforcement
Contingent reinforcement has its roots in Skinner’s theory of learning known as operant conditioning (Skinner, 1965).
According to operant conditioning, the consequences of a behavior determine the likelihood of it occurring again. Behaviors that are reinforced are more likely to occur again, whereas behaviors that are punished are less likely to occur again.
Although Skinner is credited with developing operant conditioning, the theory has its roots in Edward Thorndike’s Law of Effect (1898; 1905).
The Law of Effect states that:
“Responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation” (Gray, 2007, p. 106).
Schedules of Contingent Reinforcement
Skinner studied contingent reinforcement extensively and identified different schedules of reinforcement.
There are two main schedules: continuous and variable.
There are different versions of the variable reinforcement: fixed ratio and variable ratio. Each one produces a slightly different pattern of behavior.
1. Fixed Ratio Schedule
The fixed ratio schedule means that reinforcement is presented after the target behavior has occurred a specific number of times.
For example, an FR-10 schedule means that a reward will be delivered after the target behavior has been exhibited 10 times.
The FR schedule leads to the quick acquisition of behavior, which means that the person will start to exhibit the target behavior quickly.
After being on this schedule for some time, the rate of the behavior is strong and steady.
One notable pattern in this schedule is the post-reinforcement pause. The rate of the target behavior will pause slightly after each reinforcement.
If reinforcement stops completely, then the target behavior will also stop. This is called extinction.
Shortly after reinforcement has been terminated, the person may exhibit an extinction burst. That is a sudden increase in the target behavior.
2. Variable Ratio Schedule
The variable ratio schedule involves the presentation of reinforcement after a varied number of times the target behavior has been exhibited. Instead of the reinforcement be delivered after a specific number of target behaviors, the number varies.
For example, a VR-10 schedule means that, on average, the behavior must be exhibited 10 times in order for the reinforcer to be delivered.
The behavior might be rewarded after 3 occurrences, then 12, then 7, and so on. Although the number changes, the average over a period of time will be 10.
The variable ratio schedule can produce quick acquisition if the ratio of behavior to reward is high. The individual picks-up on the contingency between the behavior and reinforcer quickly.
Once the reward has been terminated, extinction will be slow. It takes a while for the individual to figure out that the target behavior is no longer rewarded.
In many scenarios, a continuous schedule of reinforcement is implemented in the beginning so that the individual starts exhibiting the target behavior quickly.
Once the target behavior has been acquired, the schedule is thinned, which means that the number of target behaviors needed for the reward is gradually increased.
Contingent Reinforcement Examples
- Farmwork (Fixed Ratio): Workers on a farm are usually rewarded based on the number of baskets they fill. There is a direct link between each basket filled and payment.
- Doing Chores (Variable Ratio): Although parents want their children to do their chores without expecting a reward, some parents will occasionally offer a reward of some kind to reinforce the behavior.
- The Gig Economy (Variable Ratio): A freelancer may need to apply for 15 jobs before getting one. But then, all of a sudden, the next three they apply for are successful.
- Checking for Likes on FB (Variable Ratio): When a person posts a new video they will often go to their account and check to see if they have any “likes” or not. Sometimes when they check their behavior will be rewarded because there are “likes.” However, sometimes when they check there may be no “likes” at all.
- In Basketball (Variable Ratio): No coach wants to spoil their players. So, they won’t offer praise each and every time the player does something right, such as making a good pass.
- Sales Commissions (Fixed Ratio): Many jobs in sales involve rewarding the salesperson with a commission. In some positions the commission is delivered for each sale made, while in other positions a commission may be given after a specific number has been met.
- Rewarding Book Reading (Fixed Ratio): To encourage a child to read more, some parents will offer a tangible incentive for every book read, or for every three books read, or some variation.
- Slot Machines (Variable Ratio): Most slot machines reward the target behavior (i.e., putting coins in the slot) in an unpredictable manner. The payoff is completely unpredictable.
- Video Games (Fixed Ratio): Many kinds of video games reward the player every time they engage in a specific target behavior, such as getting points for each icon hit or each monster killed.
- Fishing (Variable Ratio): There is no telling how many times it takes baiting the hook and tossing the line in order for there to be a bite. It seems like some days, every time the line goes in a fish bites. On other days, it may seem like the line has been tossed a hundred times before getting even one bite.
- Applying for a Job (Variable Ratio): Sending out a resume will sometimes result in getting an interview…and sometimes it won’t.
Applications of Contingent Reinforcement
1. In Token Economies
A token economy uses tokens as rewards that can be exchanged for desired items or privileges. It is a behavior modification technique commonly used in psychiatric hospitals, correctional facilities, substance abuse treatment programs, and classrooms.
For instance, LePage et al. (2003) implemented a token economy for inpatients in a psychiatric unit. Patients received stamps for taking medication, keeping their appointments, and showering.
The stamps could later be exchanged for off-ground passes, movies, or various snacks. Stamps were taken away for hitting others or destroying property.
A 2-year follow-up indicated a meaningful decrease in patient-patient injury (48%) and patient-employee injury (21%).
Maggin et al. (2003), conducted a literature review and concluded that although the research on token economies in school settings did not meet evidence-based standards, the evidence was supportive.
Soares et al. (2016) conducted a meta-analysis of token economies involving single-case applications and found that token economies were more effective for ages 6-15 years old than ages 3-5.
Reitman et al. (2021) noted that implementing an effective token economy requires organizational commitment, communication, and adequate training of personnel.
2. In Rewards Programs
A rewards program is offered by a company that rewards customers for purchases or use of a service. Two well-known rewards programs are offered by credit cards and airlines.
Each time a customer uses a credit card, they are rewarded with points or cash back. With airlines, the more miles a customer flies with a particular airline, the more points they accumulate, which can be exchanged for free flights or products.
These kinds of programs are utilizing contingent reinforcement. Ultimately, the goal is to increase purchasing behavior, interaction with the brand, and help build brand loyalty.
3. In Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a behavior modification strategy that utilizes the principles of classical and operant conditioning to decrease undesirable behavior and increase desirable behavior (Madden, 2012).
It is often implemented with a small number of students (in many cases only one) who are suffering from a learning disability such as autism or have typical learner profiles.
Riley et al. (2011) targeted on-task and off-task behaviors of two elementary school students (both 7 years old) with typical learner profiles that had difficulties staying focused.
The teacher provided praise for on-task behavior or redirected off-task behavior, which resulted in “…increasing the on-task behaviors of both student participants” (p. 159).
Eikeseth (2009) conducted a review of psycho-educational interventions for autistic children under the age of six and concluded that ABA is well-established and effective.
Eldevik et al. (2010) stated:
“Recent narrative and meta-analytic reviews suggest that EIBI (early intensive behavioral intervention) may meet criteria as a “well-established” intervention…effect sizes for Intelligence quotient (IQ) and adaptive behavior outcomes are in the medium to large range” (p. 17).
Warren et al. (2011) conducted a comprehensive review of published studies and concluded that ABA and other therapies help improve cognitive performance, language skills, and adaptive behavior.
However, they also noted that the strength of evidence is low and that studies showing effectiveness may be due to some children showing significant improvement, while others do not.
There are also criticisms of ABA. As Solomon (2008) describes, some members of the autistic community believe that ABA is rooted in a philosophical perspective that is non-accepting of their true personalities.
Instead of trying to make autistic children “normal,” a perspective that is based on social acceptance of harmless autistic traits should be advocated.
Contingent reinforcement applies operant conditioning to increase a specific target behavior. When the target behavior is displayed, it is rewarded, which increases the likelihood of it occurring again.
With a continuous schedule of reinforcement, the target behavior is reinforced every time it occurs. With a partial schedule, sometimes the behavior is reinforced and sometimes it is not.
There are two types of partial schedules and each one produces a different pattern of behavior.
Contingent reinforcement can be seen in everyday life in a wide range of practical scenarios. Psychiatric hospitals and schools often implement token economies to reward desired behavior and decrease undesirable behavior.
ABA utilizes contingent reinforcement and has been proven at least partially effective in helping autistic children improve their language skills, adaptive behavior, and cognitive abilities.
Credit card companies and airlines offer customers contingency-based rewards programs to increase purchases and encouragel brand loyalty.
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