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Intermittent Reinforcement and Resistance to Extinction

One of the useful principles discovered by behavioral psychologists is that intermittent reinforcement increases resistance to extinction. The word intermittent means not every time. Intermittent reinforcement contrasts with continuous reinforcement. Under conditions of continuous reinforcement, the organism is reinforced every time it makes the required response.

What effects do continuous and intermittent reinforcement have upon speed of extinction? Why?

For example, under continuous reinforcement, every time the rat hits the bar, it receives a food pellet. Under intermittent reinforcement, the rat might be required to hit the bar 50 times to get the pellet, or the rat might be reinforced only once every five minutes, or the rat might be reinforced only when you are in the room, or in accordance with some other pattern, but not every time. Any pattern of reinforcement other than continuous reinforcement is a form of intermittent reinforcement.

Extinction, as you recall, is a process of eliminating a behavior by stopping the delivery of reinforcers responsible for maintaining the behavir. Intermittent reinforcement makes extinction slower or harder to accomplish. The reason is that intermittent reinforcement makes an extinction period harder for animals to discriminate.

During an extinction period, a behavior is never reinforced. If the response has been continually reinforced in the past, the animal will quickly notice this; it will discriminate the extinction period. It will stop responding soon. By contrast, if a response is intermittently reinforced, then the animal grows accustomed to periods of no reinforcement. If an experimenter tries to extinguish the behavior by cutting off all reinforcement, the animal is less likely to notice that extinction is taking place, or more likely to persist with the behavior in the expectation that reinforcement may resume again as it has in the past. The result is that animals with a history of intermittent reinforcement do not stop a behavior as quickly as animals with a history of continuous reinforcement. Instead, they show resistance to extinction.

How might this knowledge be important for parents?

The fact that intermittent reinforcement produces persistence or resistance to extinction is an important insight for parents. Parents try to discourage a child from throwing tantrums, but some parents tire under the onslaught of the child's rage and "cave in" by reinforcing the child. In effect, they are putting the child on an intermittent reinforcement schedule. This makes the tantrums harder to stop in the future. The child will show resistance to extinction, having learned in the past that persistence pays off. Experts on parenting advise parents never to reinforce a tantrum. For example, if a child misbehaves in a store, yelling and screaming in an attempt to get a piece of candy or other desired item, the parent should simply remove the child from the store. To resist the tantrum for a while, then break down and reinforce the child, makes the behavior more persistent in the future.

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