Variable schedule of reinforcement

Ever wonder why those beaten and abused spouses stay with their abusers? Do you know why it is so hard to stop a gambling habit? It has to do with a bizarre trick of nature called variable reinforcement, and it can keep us trapped in behaviours for life.

From “Don’t Shoot the Dog!” by Karen Pryor

Schedules of Reinforcement

There is a popular misconception that if you start training a behavior by positive reinforcement, you will have to keep on using positive reinforcers for the rest of the subject’s natural life; if not, the behavior will disappear. This is untrue; constant reinforcement is needed just in the learning stages. You might praise a toddler repeatedly for using the toilet, but once the behavior has been learned, the matter takes care of itself. We give, or we should give, the beginner a lot of reinforcers – teaching a kid to ride a bicycle may involve a constant stream of “That’s right, steady now, you got it, good – However, you’d look pretty silly (and the child would think you were crazy) if you went on praising once the behavior had been acquired.

In order to maintain an already-learned behavior with some degree of reliability, it is not only not necessary to reinforce it every time; it is vital that you do not reinforce it on a regular basis but instead switch to using reinforcement only occasionally, and on a random or unpredictable basis.

This is what psychologists call a variable schedule of reinforcement. A variable schedule is far more effective in maintaining behavior than a constant, predictable schedule of reinforcement. One psychologist explained it to me this way: If you have a new car, one that has always started easily, and you get in one day and turn the key and it doesn’t start, you may try a few more times, but soon you are going to decide something is wrong and go call the garage. Your key-turning behavior, in the absence of the expected immediate reinforcement, quickly extinguishes, or dies out. If, on the other hand, you have an old clunker that almost never starts on the first try and often takes forever to get going, you may try and try to start it for half an hour; your key-turning behavior is on a long, variable schedule and is thereby strongly maintained.

If I were to give a dolphin a fish every time it jumped, very quickly the jump would become as minimal and perfunctory as the animal could get away with. If I then stopped giving fish, the dolphin would quickly stop jumping. However, once the animal had learned to jump for fish, if I were to reinforce now the first lump, then the third, and so on at random, the behavior would be much more strongly maintained; the unrewarded animal would actually jump more and more often, hoping to hit the lucky number, as it were, and the jumps might even increase in vigor. This in turn would allow me to selectively reinforce the more vigorous jumps, thus using my variable schedule to shape improved performance. But even some professional animal trainers fail to make good use of variable schedules of positive reinforcement; it seems to be a peculiarly difficult concept for many people to accept intellectually. We recognize that we don’t need to go on punishing misbehavior if the misbehavior stops, but we don’t see that its not necessary or even desirable to reward correct behavior continuously. We are less sure of ourselves when aiming for disciplined response through positive reinforcement.

The power of the variable schedule is at the root of all gambling. If every time you put a nickel into a slot machine a dime were to come out, you would soon lose interest. Yes, you would be making money but what a boring way to do it. People like to play slot machines precisely because there’s no predicting whether nothing will come out, or a little money, or a lot of money, or which time the reinforcer will come (it might be the very first time). Why some people get addicted to gambling and others can take it or leave it is another matter, but for those who do get hooked, it’s the variable schedule of reinforcement that does the hooking.

The longer the variable schedule, the more powerfully it maintains behavior. Long schedules work against you, however, if you are trying to eliminate a behavior. Unreinforced, any behavior will tend to die down by itself; but if it is reinforced from time to time, however sporadically – one cigarette, one drink, one giving in to the nagger or winner, the behavior, instead of being extinguished, may actually be strongly maintained by a long, variable schedule. That is how the ex-smoker who sneaks an occasional cigarette can go back to being a heavy smoker in a day.

We have all seen people who inexplicably stick with spouses or lovers who mistreat them. Customarily we think of this as happening to a woman – she falls for someone who is harsh, inconsiderate, selfish, even cruel, and yet she loves him – but it happens to men, too. Everyone knows such people, who, if divorced or otherwise bereft of the nasty one, go right out and find someone else just like him or her.

Are these people, for deep psychological reasons, perpetual victims? Possibly. But may they not also be victims of long-duration variable schedules? If you get into a relationship with someone who is fascinating, charming, sexy, fun, and attentive, and then gradually the person becomes more disagreeable, even abusive, though still showing you the good side now and then, you will live for those increasingly rare moments when you are getting all those wonderful reinforcers: the fascinating, charming, sexy, and lun attentiveness. And paradoxically from a commonsense viewpoint, though obviously from the training viewpoint, the rarer and more unpredictable those moments become, the more powerful will be their effect as reinforcers, and the longer your basic behavior will be maintained. Furthermore, it is easy to see why i uneone once in this kind of relationship might seek it out again.

A relationship with a normal person who is decent and friendly most of the time might seem to lack the kick of that rare, longed-for, and thus doubly intense reinforcer.

Look at it from the manipulator’s point of view: I can have her/him eating out of my hand, and doing whatever I want, for my comfort and convenience solely, as long as I give her/him what she/he wants once in a while. That’s one way pimps keep their whores in line. It’s a powerful fix, all right, but once the victim appreciates that the intensity of the “charm” is at least partly due to the nature of the reinforcement schedule, he or she can usually walk quietly away from this kind of relationship and look for something else.

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