Intermittent reinforcement is a schedule of rewards for certain behaviors or responses but without any predictable pattern. In other words, the reward comes periodically, not every time it’s performed.
Rather than bestowing a reward each time an individual exhibits certain behavior, intermittent reinforcement awards the same action at random intervals, which can sustain suspense and prevent the extinction of a behavior.
This kind of respondent conditioning is powerful because it creates an element of unpredictability that can lead to persistent and repetitive behavior.
We can see intermittent reinforcement in various contexts, such as relationships, animal training, and in education.
For example, a dog may continue to sit, roll, and come even if they don’t always get the treat, due to occasional reward.
Similarly, one partner might stay in a relationship despite its ups and downs since there are moments when their efforts get rewarded with positive interactions.
So, intermittent reinforcements provide unpredictable and unreliable rewards, which makes them hard to anticipate.
Definition of Intermittent Reinforcement
Intermittent reinforcement (also known as partial reinforcement) is a technique in operant conditioning that consists of providing rewards only occasionally instead of each time the desired behavior takes place (Alexander, 2013).
Providing rewards only occasionally creates an element of surprise and excitement that keeps the individual engaged in the activity.
According to Rollinson (2011),
“…intermittent reinforcement occurs when a reinforcer is not given every time the desired response occurs” (p. 169).
Moreover, this technique helps make the behaviors more resistant to extinction, meaning they are less likely to stop once the reward has been removed.
So, a teacher might praise their student infrequently for good behavior, or a business may provide customers with occasional incentives as part of its loyalty program.
It is believed to create long-lasting motivation by making sure your reward isn’t too predictable or frequent.
Mills and Nankervis (2013) add that:
“…when something has been learned as a result of intermittent reinforcement, the response seems to be remembered better and is more vigorous” (p. 176).
Simply, intermittent reinforcement is a technique for fostering desirable behaviors by sporadically giving rewards.
10 Examples of Intermittent Reinforcement
- Slots: Playing the slots can be quite a thrilling experience, as players may not always come out on top but will occasionally receive payouts to keep them motivated and coming back for more.
- Social media notifications: Social media notifications operate on this same principle. You may not always get likes or comments, but when you do, it’s incredibly rewarding – encouraging further use of social media platforms.
- Online shopping discounts: Online shopping discounts work similarly. Although customers don’t always benefit from reduced prices, those occasions become extremely gratifying experiences that motivate people to continue shopping with specific websites in search of future offers.
- Variable work schedules: Similarly, variable work schedules provide employees intermittent reward systems. Sometimes they land their preferred schedule, whilst other times, they’re disappointed yet still remain motivated by the hope that next time might yield better results.
- Compliments: Compliments are another great illustration since an unexpected compliment feels wonderful and encourages us to behave accordingly. So, we might have more chances of receiving positive feedback again soon afterward.
- Public transport: Public transport has similar effects since catching your bus/train immediately usually means being pleased. At the same time, having delays leads one to disappointment despite knowing there’ll probably be moments when expectations will meet after all.
- Video games: Video games are masters of leveraging intermittent reinforcement to keep players returning for more. Reaching a tough level can be immensely gratifying, providing that tantalizing reward that encourages the player to pursue greater challenges and successes.
- Romantic relationships: Romantic relationships involve some sort of intermediate reinforcements too. For example, once a partner does something sweet or thoughtful, both sides feel satisfied, promoting further desirable behavior among each other.
- Incentive programs: Incentives like cash bonuses, recognition, and extra vacation days are doled out intermittently to incentivize employees and spur them on to even greater feats of hard work. Such occasional rewards act as a powerful motivation for the workforce (see more: examples of incentives).
- Collectibles: Collecting stamps, coins, and baseball cards is a bit of a treasure hunt – you don’t always find what you’re looking for, but that’s part of the appeal! The thrill of occasionally stumbling across an elusive item keeps collectors motivated to continue their quest.
Intermittent Reinforcement vs. Continuous Reinforcement
Intermittent and continuous reinforcement are two distinct methods of rewarding certain behaviors. However, compared to the latter, intermittent reinforcement results in much longer-lasting conduct that is also significantly stronger.
Intermittent reinforcement is characterized by intermittent or sporadic rewards for desired behaviors, creating a pattern of unpredictability (Rollinson, 2011).
This type of reinforcement can be particularly effective in maintaining behavior and leads to strong resistance against extinction.
Examples include playing the slots, where occasional wins keep players engaged despite most spins resulting in no winnings.
In contrast, continuous reinforcement provides an immediate reward after each desired action. It helps establish new behaviors quickly but also leads faster toward extinction if discontinued (Worsdell et al., 2000).
An example would be giving your dog treats every time it performs a trick correctly or rewarding children with stickers when they complete assignments on time.
These actions make them learn quicker yet more vulnerable to quick extinction once they stop reinforcing their behavior!
Thus, the main difference between these two types lies within their efficacy (Worsdell et al., 2000).
Intermittent reinforcement, characterized by reward delivery at sporadic intervals, can lead to persistent behavior and strong resistance when the rewards are withdrawn.
Conversely, continuous reinforcement involves rapid learning because a reward is provided after each desired action, leading to a clearer understanding of cause-and-effect for the learner. This facilitates learning quickly, but it may not last if there’s no more incentive once discontinued.
Intermittent Schedules of Reinforcement
The four types of intermittent schedules of reinforcement – fixed interval (FI), fixed ratio (FR), variable interval (VI), and variable ratio (VR) – can be used to reinforce different behaviors (Ferster & Skinner, 1997).
Here is an explanation of each of the intermittent schedules:
- Fixed-Interval Schedule (FI): For instance, the FI schedule reinforces a behavior after an unchanging amount of time has passed since the last reward. For example, employers may offer employees a bonus at month’s end if they’ve met their sales targets.
- Fixed-Ratio Schedule (FR): FR schedule rewards are based on completing fixed numbers or tasks, such as giving a commission for every ten items a salesman sells.
- Variable-Interval Schedule (VI): On the other hand, the VI schedule involves providing reinforcements in varying lengths between each award given out. Think of verbal praise from managers scattered throughout the day as incentives for good performance.
- Variable-Ratio Schedule (VR): VR schedule utilizes variable amounts too, but this is done according to some activities accomplished instead. For example, slot machines are paying out when certain combinations appear that may not happen with regular frequency or predictability.
The type of reinforcement schedule chosen can significantly impact how behavior is acquired and retained.
Fixed schedules, for instance, lead to reliable and foreseeable behaviors. In contrast, variable reinforcements result in reactions that prove more difficult to foretell yet less likely to extinguish over time (Ferster & Skinner, 1997).
Benefits of Intermittent Reinforcement
The use of intermittent reinforcement can be a great asset when used properly, with the potential to increase motivation and cost-effectiveness.
Employing unpredictability as a motivator produces persistence and repetition under these conditions (Barnett et al., 2002).
A further advantage of infrequent rewards is reduced expenses versus providing rewards upon every successful accomplishment.
This approach introduces variety into how individuals are rewarded so that lack or redundancy doesn’t discourage progress on assigned tasks.
Instead, it serves as an encouragement for creative thinking toward problem-solving methods to reach successful outcomes.
Lastly, when compared with continuous reinforcements’ resilience levels are higher. Therefore, behaviors acquired via intermittent rewards last over longer periods (Barnett et al., 2002).
Critique of Intermittent Reinforcement
Having its benefits notwithstanding, intermittent reinforcement bears the potential for over-reliance on the reinforcement and the overjustification effect along with various other issues.
Moreover, inconsistency often leads to frustration among individuals expecting rewards for their actions from unpredictable settings, which can cause disillusionment and exhaustion of the stimulus response.
When too reliant on reinforcement-intervention patterns backfires via overjustification resulting in apathy towards desired behavior – minimizing continuity toward these ends and rendering desired outcomes difficult.
Thus, succesful usage of intermittent interventions requires thoughtful set up, making continuous better at yielding consistent results.
Intermittent reinforcement is a highly effective tool that bestows rewards at irregular times, making it difficult to anticipate.
Within a variety of settings – from parenting to loyalty programs – intermittent reinforcement functions by awarding scarce or unpredictable rewards that generate excitement and surprise.
This type of reinforcement produces more long-lasting behavioral changes than continuous reward does.
By establishing different schedules for delivery (fixed interval, fixed ratio, variable interval or variable ratio), desired behaviors can best be encouraged through the utilization of this approach.
Overall, by considering concepts behind intermittent reinforcement people can increase their ability to recognize its value.
Alexander, L. (2013). Conditioning techniques in clinical practice and research. Springer.
Barnett, D. W., Bell, S. H., & Carey, K. T. (2002). Designing preschool interventions. Guilford Press.
Ferster, C. B., & Skinner, B. F. (1997). Schedules of reinforcement. Copley Pub. Group.
Mills, D. S., & Nankervis, K. J. (2013). Equine behaviour: Principles and practice. Blackwell Science.
Rollinson, D. (2011). Organisational behaviour and analysis: And integrated approach. Pearson Educación.
Worsdell, A. S., Iwata, B. A., Hanley, G. P., Thompson, R. H., & Kahng, S. (2000). Effects of continuous and intermittent reinforcement for problem behavior during functional communication training. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 33(2), 167–179. https://doi.org/10.1901/jaba.2000.33-167