Variable Ratio Reinforcement

Today I had the chance to go to a psychology class I’m assisting as a librarian this semester. Basically, I was sitting in on the class so I had a complete idea of what their assignment was going to consist of, thus enabling me to help the students better with their research when the time came for them to start on their papers. Fascinating class. It was all about ways to encourage or discourage behavior based on rewards or punishment. Basic concept: if you want to get someone to do something more, you can either reward the positive behavior or punish the negative behavior. You can do that in a variety of ways–reward/punish every time the behavior happens, after a specific number of times the behavior happens, after a random number of times the behavior happens, etc. What I found really interesting was the fact that the most effective way of rewarding behavior comes through the random reward method. Think of this like the slot machine approach. You have a behavior (putting coins in a slot and pulling a lever) that has a reward attached to it (getting lots of money). You could reward it by giving a coin back every time a coin is put in. That’s not really going to motivate people to do the desired behavior. (Or if you give multiple coins back each time, it’ll make the casino go broke.) Then again, you could have lots of money come out after every 400th pull. Once again, that’s not going to motivate people. After a while, they’ll figure out the system, and once they know a successful pull has occurred, they’ll stop trying. The third approach is the random one–at any time, lots of money could come out of that machine. It could theoretically do it fifty times in a row. It could never do it. But every so often, it’ll do it. And that’s enough to get people coming back again and again, always going for that chance that they might be the lucky ones.

This seemed so counter intuitive to me, but once I thought about it, it made sense. And I’m thinking about incorporating the concept into my yearly goal rewards program. Maybe having some sort of system where every certain number of successfully reached goals (every five or ten days of writing 500 words or a half hour a day, for example), I’d get a token worth one drawing from a bowl full of chips. Some of the chips would be blank, others would have dollar figures or rewards listed on them. After talking to the professor some, she suggested that I not solely reward via this random mechanism–it can reinforce the idea that rewards in life are random, whereas what I want to reinforce is the concept that good habits bring good rewards. But perhaps I could use it as an extra incentive.

Still thinking about it . . . I’m always looking for better ways to motivate myself to do the things I know I want to do, but often don’t end up doing.


2 thoughts on “Variable Ratio Reinforcement”

  1. Moms and Dads are VERY different
    My first thought was how can I apply a concept like that to my children.
    My next thought was men and women are very different, I wanted to apply it to something else, whereas you sought to motivate yourself. Just an observation, not a criticism. Let me know if it works out. You could combine the two concepts, every five or ten days get a small reward and the prospect of something larger… the large reward coming at random.

  2. Re: Moms and Dads are VERY different
    Oh, I thought about my kids right away, too–it’s just that I’d already talked to the professor, who had warned me about using the concept with children. We’ll see if I can come up with a good way to use it. Oh–and nice to have you commenting again. 🙂

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