A fixed ratio schedule of reinforcement is a rewards schedule when a reward is delivered after a specific number of responses.
For example, an FR-10 schedule means that a reward will be delivered after 10 responses. The amount of time that passes does not matter.
It’s one of four schedules of reinforcement identified by B. F. Skinner. The other three schedules are:
Each schedule rewards behavior after a set number of response (ratio schedules) or after a certain interval of time has elapsed (interval schedules).
Each schedule produces a different pattern of behavior and has unique strengths and weaknesses.
Fixed Ratio Schedule Examples
- Pay per piece: Workers on an apple farm are paid for every basket of apples they pick.
- Parenting: A mother lets her child go to the playground if and only if he cleans his room first.
- Instant rewards: Every time Maria’s boyfriend says the “L” word, she gives him a big hug and kiss (this is fixed ratio because FR=1).
- Potty training: Similarly, parents might give a reward to their child every single time they go to the bathroom during potty training, with FR=1.
- Workplace KPI rewards: Members of the sales team only earn a commission if they meet their quota of 15 sales per month.
- Classroom sticker charts: A teacher gives his students a gold star for every leveled reader they finish.
- Video game rewards: A video game rewards 5 tokens for every 20 monsters that are captured by the player.
- Personal rewards for exercising: If Tony goes to the gym every day for a week, he gives himself a reward in the form of a large pepperoni pizza on Saturday.
- Café reward cards: A coffee shop gives its customers a card that tracks their purchases. After purchasing 9 cups of coffee, they get one free.
- Three strikes you’re out: Fixed ratios can also act as a disincentive, such as taking an extra dollar of pocket money from a child for every three times they misbehave.
Strengths of Fixed Ratio Schedule
1. Quick Acquisition of Behavior
In most situations, implementing a fixed ratio schedule can produce quick acquisition.
Especially when the target behavior is rewarded frequently, a person will begin to exhibit the target behavior quickly.
With animal behavior, it is important that the ratio of reward to target behavior is low, especially in the beginning. This ratio helps the animal “figure out” the required number of responses it takes to receive the reward. This is why most animal trainers will implement a 1-to-1 schedule of reinforcement in the beginning, to produce quick acquisition.
2. Strong and Steady Behavior
The fixed ratio schedule produces a rate or behavior that can grow quickly.
Workers operating under this schedule will be productive and engage in a strong and steady display of the target behavior over a sustained period of time.
Because workers know exactly what they need to do to receive an award, expectations are very clear.
Workers have a definite goal in sight to work towards.
Having clearly defined goals helps create a positive work environment and there is no ambiguity about when a reward should be given.
Weaknesses of Fixed Ratio Schedule
1. Post-reward Pause
A common characteristic of the fixed ratio schedule is a drop in behavior immediately after being rewarded.
For people working in high-pressure environments, a break every now and then can have many benefits.
However, there are many work scenarios in which a lull in behavior affects the bottom line.
For example, if members of the sales team start to relax after receiving their bonus, this can lower company profits if this pattern holds over a long period of time.
Some workers can tire themselves out because they are constantly striving to reach the next reward.
The advantage of producing steady behavior can turn into a negative because some workers seldom relax and take a much-needed break.
In the case of manual labor, this can result in muscle fatigue or carpal tunnel syndrome.
3. Quick Extinction
If the reward-to-target behavior ratio is low, then it doesn’t take long for workers to stop displaying the target behavior once reinforcement has been eliminated.
They figure this out quickly and so simply stop. In animal behavior, something similar also happens.
When the target behavior stops being displayed, it is called extinction and it can occur quickly with fixed ratio schedules.
Fixed vs Intermittent (Variable) Ratio Schedule
Where the fixed ratio rewards the target behavior after a specific number of instances have occurred, the number of instances required changes in the intermittent ratio schedule.
Sometimes it only takes a few instances of the target behavior before a reward is delivered, but the next reward may require a large number of instances.
Both schedules produce similar rates of acquisition. This depends on the ratio of behavior to reward. The lower the ratio the quicker the acquisition.
Both schedules produce relatively strong and steady behavior. However, extinction of the target behavior can take longer with the intermittent schedule. In animal behavior, it simply takes longer for the animal to realize it is no longer being rewarded.
Different schedules of reinforcement produce different patterns of behavior. With the fixed ratio schedule, the target behavior is rewarded after a specific number of times it is exhibited. That number stays the same.
This leads to relatively quick acquisition of behavior, a rate of behavior that is strong and steady, but with quick extinction. Sales teams and assembly line workers are two examples of people operating under a fixed ratio schedule.
Although the rate of behavior is steady, there is usually a post-reward pause immediately after a reward has been applied. Workers take a break or slow down the rate of responding.
In some circumstances, a fixed ratio schedule can lead to exhaustion or burnout. Workers tire themselves out because they are responding at a high rate for an extended period of time. In extreme cases, that can lead to mental and physical fatigue.
Ferster, C. B., & Skinner, B. F. (1957). Schedules of reinforcement. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Skinner, B. F. (1958). Reinforcement today. American Psychologist, 13(3), 94–99.
Morgan, D. L. (2010). Schedules of reinforcement at 50: A retrospective appreciation. The Psychological Record, 60, 151–172. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03395699
Reed P. (2001). Schedules of reinforcement as determinants of human causality judgments and response rates. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Animal Behavior Processes, 27(3), 187–195.