Radical Behaviorism: Theory of Reinforcement
Scholars believed that B.F. Skinner’s view on reinforcement was derived and patterned from Thorndike’s law of effect in 1911. This theory asserts that particular stimuli can function as either punishers or reinforcers in a given situation (Adams, 2000, p. 5). When Skinner developed this concept in the 1950s, he merely described the relation between stimulus and the change of behavior of a subject. This is deemed as the simplest reinforcement theory version. The radical behaviorist did not offer at all an explanation of “the why of reward’s effect on behavior” (Berridge, 2001, p. 223). As what Skinner believed:
The Law of Effect is no theory. It simply specifies a procedure for altering the probability of a chosen response. But when we try to say why [italics in original] reinforcement has this effect, theories arise. Learning is said to take place because the reinforcement is pleasant, satisfying, tension-reducing, and so on (Skinner, 1950, p. 78).
The operation of reinforcement pertains to “the presentation of a certain kind of stimulus in a temporal relationship with either a stimulus or a response” (Adams, 2000, p. 3). Reinforcement generally aims to alter the strength or weakness of response behavior. It is “the idea that reward learning consists primarily of a process by which behavior is directly strengthened or weakened by the consequence that follows it” (Berridge, 2001, p. 223). The response relies heavily on the consequence of an action. In other words, this encapsulates anything that precedes behavior; moreover, it increases the chance of that particular behavior. For instance, when a mother gives her child an excessive allowance (i.e. money) in the school, there is a big chance that the student will frequently ask for it. Thus, giving excessive allowance when the child asks is a process of reinforcing his/her allowance requesting behavior. According to the theory of Skinner, when there is a positive consequence, the behavior of the subject is repeated. On the contrary, when there is a negative consequence, the behavior of the subject is not repeated.
Positive reinforcement “is a technique to elicit and to strengthen new behaviors by adding rewards and incentives instead of eliminating benefits” (Wei & Yazdanifard, 2014, p. 9). The main goal of positive reinforcement is to let the behavior happen again. This may be in the form of verbal praise, allowance, food, prizes, or even special activities. On the other hand, the goal of negative reinforcement is to improve the frequency of a particular desired behavior. The result should be the removal of an undesirable behavior or negative event and the promotion of desirable behavior. It is noteworthy to emphasize that negative reinforcement should not be viewed as punishment.
Punishment “is a tool used to remove unwanted or undesirable actions, and it can be used to decrease the intensity of behaviors” (Wei & Yazdanifard, 2014, p. 10). The purpose of punishment (also refereed as discipline) is to diminish the frequency or likelihood of a specific undesired behavior. These may be in the form of privilege loss, corporal punishment, grounding, time out, and removal.
Primary reinforcement is perceived as something that directly related to biological function. On the other hand, secondary reinforcement is seen as artificial or arbitrary. In other words, secondary reinforcement is those “whose powers have been acquired through an association with more powerful rewards or punishment” (Walker, 1975, p. 101).
Schedule of Reinforcement
Schedule of reinforcement is deemed as one of “the most powerful determinants of behavior” (Zeiler, 1977, p. 201). This is because the effects of each schedule of reinforcement are perceived as systematic and orderly when applied to the individual organism. Therefore, they can be replicated across and within species. Each of the schedules possesses characteristics effects. If the effects failed to replicate, this signifies that the schedule indicates the deficiency. Schedule of reinforcement specifies whether or not responses of the subject are followed by reinforcement.
Types of schedule are classified through responses and time. If the schedule is response-independent, it is considered as time schedules. This may be further subdivided into variable-interval or fixed-interval, “depending on whether the inter reinforcer time is fixed, or changes from one reinforce presentation to the next” (Zeiler, 1977, p. 201). Ratio schedule is the term used to schedule reinforcement that is response-dependent. This may be variable-ratio or fixed-ratio “depending on whether a fixed or variable number of responses is required” (Zeiler, 1977. P. 201).
There are many real world application of the schedule of reinforcement. For instance, employees working and getting their salary on the monthly basis is an example of fixed-interval schedule. This is often seen in the corporate world where employees receive the paycheck every 15th and 30th of the month. Regardless of completing or not completing the assigned task to him, he gets the paycheck on time. This is an example of fixed-interval schedule – the employee is not rewarded by extra payment if he works harder or not.
On the other hand, if the employer acknowledges the accomplishment of the employee and gives the reward or not, this is considered as fixed-ratio. This protocol is also common in the corporate world, whereby employees receive salary on a fixed-time basis. Further, the amount of the salary received depends on the accomplishment or ratio of work performed by the employee. If he works harder, the employee receives a higher amount of paycheck, and if he worked less, he is penalized by decreasing the amount of his paycheck. Nevertheless, he receives his paycheck on time.
An example of variable-ratio schedule can be seen in the realm of gambling, for instance, casino. When a person enters into the casino, there is no chance that he gets payoff by winning. Even if the person plays every day, this will not be an indicator that he will win because payoff works on a “random basis”. However, the more entry would also mean the more chances of winning.
Lastly, an example of variable-interval can be seen when someone works in a person with unpredictable and shady character. Although the employer pays, the employee does not get the guarantee when and how much the boss will pay. Regardless of the employee’s hard work, he does not receive compensation for it.
Adams, M. (2000). Reinforcement Theory and Behavior Analysis. Behavioral Analyst Online Journal 9 (1): 3-6.
Berridge, K. (2001). Reward Learning: Reinforcement, Incentives, and Expectations. The Psychology of Learning and Motivation 40: 223-278.
Skinner, B. F. (1950). Are theories of learning necessary? Psychological Review, 57, 193-216.
Walker, S. (1975). Learning and Reinforcement (Essential Psychology). Methuen Young Books.
Wei, L. & Yazdanifard, R. (2014). The Impact of Positive Reinforcement on Employees’ Performance in Organizations. American Journal of Industrial and Business Management 4: 9-12.
Zeiler, M. (1977). Schedules of Reinforcement: The Controlling Variables. In Honig, W.K. & Staddon, J. Handbook of Operant Behavior. New Jersey: Englewood Cliffs, Prentice Hall.