Reinforcement is the process of using rewards or reinforces to strengthen particular responses. A reinforcer is any event that strengthens the response it follows that is, that increases the likelihood of that response occurring again. One of the most important challenges for anyone trying to teach something to an animal or person is to figure out just what things are reinforcing to that individual.
Some things, such as food, water, and affection, seem to be naturally reinforcing; these are called primary reinforcers. Other things or events become reinforcing as a result of their association with primary reinforcers; these are called secondary reinforcers. Secondary reinforcers play a big part in shaping our behavior. Think of all the behaviors we engage in to earn awards, pats on the back, and grades. We have learned that the awards, pats, and grades are rewarding because they tend to go along with other more basic rewards, such as affection and esteem.
One of the most important secondary reinforcers for human beings is money. Consider a dollar bill. To a small child a dollar may not seem to be much of a reinforcement. It doesn’t taste particularly good; it’s not much fun to rub against; and the expression on George Washington’s or (in Canada) Queen Elizabeth’s face looks, if anything, rather forbidding. But dollar bills become reinforcers once we have learned that they can be exchanged for food, clothing, and other items that are primary reinforcers.
Similarly, poker chips, which in themselves have little value, are highly reinforcing to gamblers, who know that they can cash in the chips for money, which in turn can be used for whatever it is that the gamblers really find rewarding. Even monkeys can be rewarded with poker chips for learning new behaviors, if the monkeys have previously learned that the chips can later be exchanged for food.
Words such as yes or right can also serve as reinforcers because of their association with other rewards, such as a parent’s affection or a teacher’s approval. As we saw in the experiment with preschoolers, a teacher’s comment was enough to reinforce cross-sex play.
Do You Know;Reinforcement Can Be Either Positive Or Negative In Psychology
In positive reinforcement, a re- warding stimulus is presented after a response in order to strengthen the response. In negative reinforcement, the response is strengthened by the removal or by the avoidance of an unpleasant stimulus. If a mother praises her daughter for dressing nicely, that is positive reinforcement. If she keeps nagging the daughter until she changes into nicer clothes and then stops nagging when she does, that is negative reinforcement. Psychologists use both positive and negative reinforcement in studying learning in animals. A dog can learn to jump over a barrier in order to get food (positive reinforcement) or to avoid or escape an electric shock (negative reinforcement). In either case, the response of jumping over the barrier is strengthened.
Positive and negative reinforcers play a central part in our daily lives. We buy food that tastes good and that fills us. We read books by authors who have pleased us in the past. On dark days we take an umbrella or raincoat to avoid get- ting wet. In each instance, we behave in a way that we believe will produce re- wards and avoid unpleasantness. Of course, people differ in what reinforces them. Some people enjoy horror movies, and others are repelled by them. Some people love broccoli, and others (such as President George Bush) won’t touch the stuff. For reinforcement to be effective, it must be well timed. Delayed reinforcement, administered some time after the response, is less likely to be effective than more immediate reinforcement.
If an animal receives food a long time after it has pressed a bar, a clear association may not be formed between the behavior and the consequence, so the behavior is not likely to be repeated. We humans are better able to tolerate delays than are other animals because of our ability to think about the long-term consequences of a behavior. Thus, a student may study hard now in order to get a good grade in a few months. Even so, it is often frustrating, rather than rewarding, to have to wait for a reward that we think we have earned. If you tell me a joke and I laugh a minute later, your joke-telling behavior will probably not be reinforced at all.
Schedules of Reinforcement.
If a learned response is no longer reinförced, rhe person or animal will eventually stop producing the response; at this point the response is said to be extinguished. Thus, if a rat in a Skinner box is no longer reinforced with food for pressing a bar, the bar pressing will eventually cease. And, as noted earlier, when nursery- school teachers stopped reinförcing children for cross-sex play, the children went back to their previous behavior. Similarly, you will stop shopping a store that gives you bad service, and you will stop putting your money in a slot machine that never pays off. The ease which a response can be extinguished is influenced by its schedule of reinforcement the frequency or rate at which reinforcement occurs.
Some or our behaviors are reinforced every time we produce [hem. When you press the elevator button, the elevator stops at your floor, When you go to a cafeteria for lunch, you get food. In both cases you are receiving continuous reinforce- But it is at least as common responses to be rewarded on some occasions and not on others. If you are familiar with a soft-drink machine that works only some of the rime, you understand the concept of partial reinforcement. When responses-are first acquired, continuous reinforcement is most effective in producing a strong response. Bur such responses are easily extinguished. On the other hand. if a response has been reinforced on a partial or intermittent schedule, it takes longer the response to extinguish when reinforcement is withdrawn.
Why is this the case? With partial reinforcement, the person or animal comes to learn that not ever response will be reinforced. As a result, the individual may keep trying even when reinforcement is withheld, in the hope that sooner or later reinforcement will be provided. For example, suppose you have a very reliable car. It has always started without trouble, and you’ve never had a problem with it. Then one morning it simply won’t start. You try to start it several times, but nothing happens. In this case, you will probably give up and call for a mechanic.
But suppose you have an old clunker that starts right up some days and is sluggish on others. Again, one morning you try to start it, and nothing happens. Because you know that this car is erratic, you will probably spend a much longer time trying to start it. With the reliable car your starting response is likely to extinguish rather quickly, but with the clunker extinction may take hours. In fact, you may keep returning to the car at various points during the day to see if ‘ ‘just this rime” it might start.