Schedules of Reinforcement

Before I took a brief hiatus, we were talking about reinforcement and how to use it effectively. I mentioned that there is no such thing as intrinsic reinforcement. What could I possibly mean by that? Of course there are inside sources of pleasure and joy!

Yes, and I don’t deny that is true. But many of the things we think we do for altruistic reasons just ain’t altruistic at all. Why thanks, Dr. Buzzkill…. Sorry. The truth is most of the things that we do are either 1. Reinforced by something other than what we think it is; or 2. Reinforced so infrequently we don’t even realize it’s happening.

So far, we have talked about identifying your reinforcers, but as we said before, if it doesn’t increase responding, it ain’t a reinforcer. Sometimes, things happen like good feelings and that warm feeling in your stomach. Sometimes there is a skip in your step. They can reinforce your behavior, but reinforcement is more complicated.

Take, for example, me running. I hate it. No, really, I hate it. Yet I sign up for 5ks, get on the treadmill occasionally, etc… Am I just masochistic? Nope. A Cochrane Review on exercise and depression shows evidence for the mood lifting effects of exercise. The most frequently studied type of exercise? Running. Therefore, I get a good hit of neurotransmitters, and that seems to lift me out of my ruts. I run 5ks because I like being with others. Working out alone never lasts very long.

But back to schedules of reinforcement. Here’s the thing – behavior isn’t necessarily reinforced every time we do it. Most behavior is reinforced on some sort of schedule. Sometimes, two or more schedules might be in effect. This always boggles my intro to ABA students, so we might need more than one blog to talk about it.

Most long-term behavior is on some sort of intermittent schedule. Please forgive my lapse into Wikipedia here, but it is accurate information. Basically, with intermittent schedules, reinforcement comes after a certain number of responses, a certain passage of time, or in discreet bursts. The more regular the intermittent schedule is, the more we adjust our behavior to be around that specific time frame. This can explain why we tend to diet and exercise more closer to specific events, like competitions or high school reunions.

It also explains why even though we promise ourselves we won’t, we typically fall off the wagon right after these events. If reinforcers are predicable, we tend to pause for a little and wait until just before the next reinforcer is expected. So, cut weight for the match, fill back up for a while, cut weight for the match, etc…. you can see where this is going.

So, how do I make healthy living consistent? First of all, accept that you won’t be perfect. It is not achievable and don’t let anyone tell you it is. I guarantee if you talk to the most dedicated triathlete, they will tell you they have times where they sit on the couch and eat ice cream.

One of the best ways is to made reinforcement unpredictable. The more unpredictable and the more we have to do to get the reinforcer, the more persistent we become. Think of lottery tickets. What if I get the payoff this time? So we buy the tickets, and usually, nothing happens.

Which brings me to the second part of why the lottery is so brilliant. You might not win a million dollars (and if you do, adopt me), but you might get a dollar or two. Or if you are my nephew, $400 on a scratch-off. These little wins (reinforcers) keep you going in hopes of the bigger prize.

This is where the behavior analyst as coach has an opportunity to help. They can put together a plan that reinforces little things as well as keeps things unpredictable. I’m thinking of some little things can occur when I least expect:

  • Last week, I was able to lift a 45-lb bar over my head more than once without fear of it crashing on my head. Very little win, very big reinforcer.
  • My favorite Spin instructor plays cool, obscure music and has music trivia days. His favorite musician happens to be my cousin. I get to his class when I can, and I never know what will be on his playlist.
  • I have 10-15 minute stretches without back pain. They are rather random and I don’t know when they are going to happen, but when they do, they are awesome.

Your reinforcers will, of course, be different, but I challenge you to consider the little, less expected things that keep you going. How do they work in your life? Would love to hear your comments!


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