Continuous reinforcement is a behavior reinforcement schedule where the target behavior is rewarded every time it occurs. It is juxtaposed to partial reinforcement where the reward or punishment occurs intermittently.
Continual positive reinforcement of a behavior makes the behavior more likely to occur again while continual negative reinforcement disincentivizes its recurrence.
This concept is part of B. F. Skinner’s (1965) principles of operant conditioning. It is most often used early on, such as in childhood or with puppies, so the animal/person will exhibit the target behavior as fast as possible, referred to as quick acquisition.
Continuous Reinforcement Definition
It is based on the idea that reinforcement can help to shape behaviors. Rewards increase the likelihood of it happening again, while disincentives decrease chances that it will recur.
As argued by Gray:
“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).
Once the target behavior has been acquired and is repeated every time it is requested, then continuous reinforcement may be phased out and replaced with a partial schedule of reinforcement.
Partial reinforcement refers to instances where reinforcement of behaviors does not occur every time, but may occur at a ratio (fixed ratio and variable ratio) or time interval (fixed interval and variable interval).
However, if reinforcement is ceased during a continuous reinforcement schedule, the behavior will also cease quickly, referred to as quick extinction.
Continuous Reinforcement Examples
- Gold Stars for Correct Spelling: When checking the spelling tests of students, the teacher puts a gold star sticker next to each word spelled correctly to condition the respondent.
- Sales Commissions: A company gives a small commission to the salesperson for each sale they make.
- Online Phonics Game: Every time the player chooses the correct option, a bright colored bell appears and jingles a few seconds.
- Reward for Opening an App: Each time a person clicks on a specific app to use on their phone, they are rewarded with tokens that can be used towards purchases.
- Cheerful Voice When Answering: A company trains all of the customer service reps to answer each phone call with a cheerful and pleasant voice.
- Vending Machines: Every purchase is rewarded with a product, thereby reinforcing behavior and increasing the chances of it happening again.
- Greeting Others with a Smile: Friendly people often greet others with a smile, which creates a favorable impression and makes people want to interact with them more frequently.
- Selling Real Estate: Real estate agents receive a percentage of a house’s sale price.
- After Reading a Book: Parents have decided to reward their child with $5 for each history book they read.
- Giving a Big High-Five: Whenever a student in this kindergarten class raises their hand and gets a question right, the teacher walks over to them and delivers a big high-five.
Partial Reinforcement vs Continuius Reinforcement
|Criteria||Partial Reinforcement||Continuous Reinforcement|
|Definition||A reinforcement schedule where a response is only reinforced some of the time, rather than every time it occurs.||A reinforcement schedule where a response is reinforced every time it occurs.|
|Types||Fixed-ratio, variable-ratio, fixed-interval, variable-interval||N/A|
|Learning Speed||Slower initial learning, as the reinforcement is not consistent.||Faster initial learning, due to consistent reinforcement.|
|Resistance to Extinction||Higher resistance to extinction, as the learned behavior persists even when reinforcement is no longer provided.||Lower resistance to extinction, as the behavior is more likely to cease when reinforcement is no longer provided.|
|Examples||Slot machines (variable-ratio), pop quizzes (variable-interval)||Training a dog to sit by giving a treat every time the dog sits|
|Application||Useful in maintaining long-term behavior and promoting persistence, often seen in gambling, sales, and studying habits.||Effective for teaching new behaviors and ensuring rapid acquisition of skills, often seen in animal training and early stages of learning.|
|Psychological Effect||May lead to increased persistence and stronger resistance to extinction due to the unpredictability of reinforcement.||May lead to a strong association between the behavior and reinforcement, but may also result in less persistence when reinforcement is no longer provided.|
Case Studies of Continuous Reinforcement
1. Video Game Play
One reason video games are so much fun is because they provide the player with so many different types of reward. In simple games, when the player hits an icon, they are rewarded with points. The more icons hit, the more points rewarded. This is a straightforward application of continuous reinforcement.
This continuous reinforcement can be layered so that different types of icons are associated with different amounts of points.
These rewards serve as strong reinforcers for players to continue playing.
In fact, there may be a neurological basis of these rewards. For example, Lorenz et al. (2015) summarize neuroimaging studies on video game players:
“these studies show that neural processes that are associated with video gaming are likely to be related to alterations of the neural processing in the VS, the core area of reward processing” (p. 2).
This indicates that reward centers in the brain are activated by video game playing, thereby increasing the chances of playing happening again.
Each icon hit activates the reward centers in the brain.
2. Credit Card Rewards Programs
All major credit cards offer rewards programs. They all operate with the same basic structure: the more you spend, the more rewards you receive. There is a direct correlation between spending and reward. The reward could be in the form of air-miles, points, or cash-back.
No matter the form of the reward, the objective is the same: increase customers’ use of the card.
But one question remains: does the reward work?
Banerji and Farooqi (2017) conducted a survey of customers in Delhi India to examine the relative impact of five factors on consumers’ use of rewards programs: Convenience, Aspirational value, Cash value, Redemption choice and Relevance.
The researchers state:
“These factors represent a total of 68.2% of variance,” but that “Convenience’ emerged as most important dimension for Credit Card Reward Program which explains 19.28% of variance.”
So, it seems that reinforcement in the form of cash incentives was not the most important factor driving consumer behavior at all, but rather it was convenience that was most important (here, we see that intangible incentives can beat tangible incentives at times).
3. Loyalty Programs
A loyalty program is designed to increase the purchasing behavior of existing customers. Loyalty programs exist in many consumer-driven industries such as airlines and hotels, in addition to restaurants and high-end fashion and cosmetics brands.
Although there are some variations, many times the reward structure is on a continuous reinforcement schedule: each time the customer makes a purchase, they are rewarded.
Some programs utilize a fixed-ratio schedule, so that the customer much reach a certain threshold of spending before receiving a reward. Each company tailors their system to their unique customer profile.
David Feldman writes:
“The real currency of any loyalty program lies in its ability to drive changes in consumer behavior.”
According to Feldman, most companies utilize several underlying strategies to increase frequency of visits, make higher purchases per visit, and improve affinity for the brand.
4. Continuous Reinforcement in the Classroom
Reinforcement schedules can be particularly effective when applied in the classroom with children that have learning difficulties.
The above video demonstrates a teacher working with a kindergarten aged child with a learning disability. The lesson is about colors. The teacher places two colored pieces of paper in front of the child, and asks the child to “give” one of the colors.
The child’s correct response is rewarded on a continuous schedule. That is, each time the child selects the correct piece of paper, the teacher rewards them with verbal praise and an energetic physical contact gesture.
The reinforcement is also applied after other desired target behaviors, such as relinquishing toys during a break so that instruction can continue.
5. Continuous Reinforcement and Hunger Satiation
Skinner conducted much of his research on operant conditioning using various animals such as rats and pigeons. He designed a Skinner Box that would enable him to change the reinforcement schedule and examine the effects on behavior.
In the above video, the effects of hunger satiation are demonstrated. One rat is hungry and the other rat is satiated.
When placed in two separate Skinner boxes, the behavior of the two rats is quite different. The hungry rat is very active and explores the surroundings. The satiated rat is lethargic and does not explore.
After several minutes, the hungry rat presses a bar and discovers that food will be delivered. It takes a few repetitions, but the rat quickly learns that pressing the bar delivers a reward.
The bar-pressing behavior is rewarded on a continuous reinforcement schedule. The behavior is acquired quickly once the rat perceives the contingency.
Continuous reinforcement refers to delivering a reward after each instance of a target behavior. This leads to quick acquisition of the behavior.
Continuous reinforcement of behavior occurs in everyday life, such as when a friendly person greets others with a smile, or when parents reward their children for reading.
Teachers apply continuous reinforcement when students perform well on spelling tests, give correct answers in class, or when working with children with learning disabilities.
As it turns out, neuroimaging studies have revealed that playing video games activates reward areas in the brain, which may partially explain why they are so addicting.
Many consumer industries implement continuous reinforcement schedules to reward consumer behavior, increase spending and build brand loyalty.
Banerji, R., & Farooqi, R. (2017). Important factors of credit card reward program-A consumers’ perspective in new economy. GD Goenka Business Review, 2, 20-27. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3039327
Ferster, C. B., & Skinner, B. F. (1957). Schedules of reinforcement. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Gray, P. (2007). Psychology (6th ed.). Worth Publishers, NY.
Jablonsky, S. F., & DeVries, D. L. (1972). Operant conditioning principles extrapolated to the theory of management. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 7(2), 340-358.
Lorenz, R., Gleich, T., Gallinat, J., & Kühn, S. (2015). Video game training and the reward system. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9, article 40, 1-9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2015.00040
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