Behavior 101 #5: Differential Reinforcement

Now that we’ve learned about the four quadrants of reinforcement and punishment, how EOs and AOs effect these, how to identify the function of a behavior, and how to use schedules of reinforcement, we can start to think about how to use these behavior principles to alter behavior. In order to do that, we must learn how items are discriminated within our environment. How do we know that a spoon is good for eating soup, but a knife is better for cutting? We’ve learned to discriminate between these two things. If we use a spoon versus a knife for soup, we’ll get access to our reinforcement (the soup) must faster and with much less effort. But if I try and cut a prime rib with a spoon, well, I’ll be making a huge mess and probably just pick the thing up and take a bite out of it before I’m successful with cutting it. Our history of differential reinforcement tells us that the quickest way to get the soup in our mouth is with the use of a spoon, but the quickest way to cut the steak will be with a knife.

Differential reinforcement is the systematic use of positive reinforcement used in behavior modification programs- usually to get rid of unwanted behaviors and to increase wanted or replacement behaviors. Basically you reinforce behaviors under certain circumstances, and don’t reinforce under other circumstances. The target behavior is put on extinction, and replaced with some other behavior, depending on what type differential reinforcement program you are using. There are several types of differential reinforcement, each one used depending on the circumstances and function of the behavior.

DRO- differential reinforcement of other behaviors. In this situation the instructor will reinforce any appropriate behavior that is occurring instead of the target behavior. For instance, you set a timer for 10 minutes and reinforce at the end of the 10 minutes, if the target behavior has not occurred. Any other behavior can occur as long as it’s not the target behavior. The length of time you choose will be dependent on how often the behavior is occurring, and how short of an interval it needs to be to be initially successful.

DRH- differential reinforcement of high rates of behavior. The instructor reinforces the behavior only after it has occurred at high rates in a given period of time, generally starting at a rate slightly higher than is already occurring and often increasing until a predetermined rate is reached. As with DRO, the length of time you choose will be dependent on how often the behavior is occurring, and how short of an interval it needs to be to be initially successful.

DRL- differential reinforcement of low rates of behavior. The opposite of a DRH program. The instructor reinforces the behavior for occurring at low rates in a period of time, generally progressing lower as the program goes on until a predetermined rate is reached. Again- you guessed it- the length of time of each interval is dependent on how often the behavior occurs, etc. etc.

DRA- differential reinforcement of alternative behavior. This is similar to a DRO, except you’re looking to reinforce only a specific alternative behavior, usually each time if occurs, instead of any appropriate behavior.

DRI- differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior. The instructor reinforces a behavior that is incompatible with the target behavior, which means the target behavior cannot occur at the same time as the incompatible behavior. The incompatible behavior can be physically incompatible, or functionally incompatible. You might reinforce a person singing a song to eliminate that person’s whistling behavior (Or you reinforce them keeping their mouth shut?).

If you're sitting, you can't also be running!

If you’re sitting, you can’t also be running!

Differential reinforcement in some way is responsible for most of our learning. You’re differentially reinforced for saying “Mom” when addressing your mom, but not when addressing your dad. You’re reinforced for sitting at your desk in school and doing work when in English, but for during gym. Or recess. Or after school hours (assuming you’re not in detention- what did you do this time?).

When using differential reinforcement, it’s important to ignore the unwanted behavior, and reinforcement according to your DR strategy. Don’t forget how to properly reinforce:

Reinforce immediately
Reinforce frequently
Reinforce enthusiastically
Describe the behavior (e.g. “Good Sit!!!”)
Use a variety of proven reinforcers

Be prepared for an extinction bust, where the behavior gets worse before it gets better. Differential reinforcement is a good way to combat unwanted behaviors without the use of punishment.

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