Schedules of Reinforcement

As we discussed earlier, reinforcement can be delayed while still satisfying our need for immediate gratification with a bridge, or even marker. This system can also help us make our healthy habits more resistant to extinction.

Before I go complete training nerd on you all, let’s break down some terminology for you. Extinction is when a behavior basically disappears due to no reinforcement. The process of making a behavior extinct is called extinguishing, like putting out a fire.

Extinguishing a behavior is often a go-to method for trainers wanting to eliminate problem behaviors. If you want your dog to stop barking, one method is to put the bark on cue, or create a behavior where the dog ONLY gets reinforced for barking when you specifically ask for it. And then, once the behavior is trained, never ask for it again.

This is often easier said than done, because you will go through two separate periods where the undesired behavior actually increases more- in the initial training once the dog figures out he’s getting rewarded for barking, but hasn’t figured out the signal, and again when you stop asking for the behavior.

But extinguishing a behavior is very effective. So effective, that I am telling you all about it to warn you against a similar fate with your new healthy habits. If you do not at least occasionally reinforce your healthy habits, you may well extinguish them. And an extinct behavior is very hard to get back (think how hard it will be to bring back dinosaurs).

So, while you establish new habits, I feel it’s important to maintain a positive reinforcement schedule. However, I don’t feel you need to reinforce your healthy habits each and every time you accomplish something, especially not for the rest of your life. That gets a bit ridiculous. Instead, we establish another training principle. We shift from a continuous schedule of reinforcement to an intermittent schedule of reinforcement.

I will also place a disclaimer about this section, as schedules of reinforcement can be quite complicated, and I’m simplifying the hell out of it. If you are an animal professional, and schedules of reinforcement are your thing, I apologize for butchering your favorite topic. But ZooFit is inspired by principles of animal training, not an exact copy.

Okay, so when learning a new behavior, the research shows it is more effective, meaning much easier and faster to pick up the new behavior, when it is rewarded continuously. But once the behavior is established, it is more effective to switch to an intermittent schedule.

An intermittent schedule of reinforcement is one where every behavior is not reinforced. Sometimes it is every five repetitions. Sometimes there is a delay in time. But what’s important is there is eventual reinforcement. In the animal’s mind, they keep at what they are doing, and they’ll get rewarded, eventually.

Intermittent schedules are a part of our everyday life. Paychecks are on an intermittent schedule. Telemarketers are reinforced on an intermittent schedule. Customer loyalty cards are part of an intermittent schedule as well.

As I mentioned, putting a behavior on a different schedule creates resistance to extinction. This is because the animal expects the delay. They know they don’t get reinforced for EVERY jump, EVERY time. The bird may have to make two laps around the arena before they hear the signal to fly down and get a treat. The rat pushes a lever and has to wait 30 seconds before food is delivered.


So, once we have established a healthy habit, we want to make it resistant to extinction. We want to strengthen that behavior. The best way to do that is to not reinforce it every single time. Once it’s established, put it on an intermittent schedule.

My favorite is called a fixed-ratio schedule. Fixed-ratio schedules of reinforcement reward behavior after a set amount of repetitions. A rat gets reinforced for every 10th button he presses. This works like a customer loyalty card. Every ten punches, you get a free sandwich/coffee/whatever.  Make yourself a loyalty card to your habits. Instead of reinforcing every glass of water, reinforce every ten glasses of water, or each day you drink enough water. If you get really good at that, increase it to every 3 days you drink 10 glasses of water, or 5 days. Slowly increasing the ratio of time between reinforcement doesn’t weaken the behavior. It makes it stronger. Especially as you get closer to your reinforcement.

But a word of warning when making the switch. Shift to a schedule which is too long of a delay in too short of a time, and you risk extinguishing the behavior. So, if you are getting really good at logging your meals because you reinforced your behavior after every meal, shifting to every ten days may be too big of a jump. Try every day, then every two days, then gradually every week, or two weeks. Find the happy spot where you can still maintain the motivation, and still revel in the reward for your excellent new healthy behavior.

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