Differential reinforcement: what it is and how it is used in psychology

Differential reinforcement: what it is and how it is used in psychology

Within behavior modification techniques, we find a wide variety of strategies to increase, reduce or eliminate behaviors. A key strategy is reinforcement, which encompasses all those procedures that increase the probability of a behavior occurring.

In this article we will talk about a type of reinforcement, the differential reinforcement , oriented to eliminate or reduce behaviors while others are enhanced. We will know the five types that exist, their characteristics, how they are applied and examples of each of them.

Differential reinforcement: what is it?

Differential reinforcement is a type of learning typical of behaviour modification techniques (behavioural psychology), which consists of reinforcing only some behaviours while others are put under extinction (they are stopped being reinforced so that they become extinct), or reinforcing certain behaviours after certain periods of time, etc.

As we will see, there are five types of differential reinforcement, depending on the objective we have, and their characteristics are very diverse.

What is reinforcement?

It is important, in order to understand differential reinforcement, that the concept of reinforcement is clear. Reinforcement implies administering a positive stimulus or withdrawing a negative one when a certain action is performed , which increases the probability of occurrence of certain behaviour. For example, a reinforcement may be a compliment (verbal reinforcement), a cookie (primary reinforcement), a treat (social reinforcement), an afternoon at the cinema, more time watching television, more time with friends, etc.

Types, with examples

There are several types of differential reinforcement , according to their characteristics and what they are trying to achieve:

1. High Rate Differential Reinforcement (RDA)

In this type of reinforcement the response will be reinforced if less than a certain time has elapsed since the previous response . In other words, the aim is for the response to increase its rate of appearance, and to appear more often.

Example of GDR

An example that illustrates a GDR is a teenager who has a hard time being assertive (i.e., she has a hard time saying what she thinks, saying “no”, standing up for her rights, etc.). In this case, the way to apply a high rate differential reinforcement will be to reinforce the adolescent if in “X” period of time she has been assertive certain times , that is, if a short time has elapsed between the assertive behaviours.

Thus, in relation to this case, an assertive conduct would be for example to say “no” to the request of a favor that we do not want to do, or to say a personal opinion against what the majority thinks, with the objective of defending a personal interest, etc.

Limited response RDA

The RDA has the following subtype, called limited response differential reinforcement. In this process the subject is reinforced if at least “X” times the response appears during a given period of time .

2. Low rate differential reinforcement (RDB)

This second type of reinforcement is the opposite of the GDR. In this case, the response is reinforced if a certain time has elapsed since the previous response. In other words, the behaviour is intended to reduce its frequency , decrease and appear more spaced out in time.

Thus, this type of reinforcement is indicated for cases where the objective is not to eliminate the behavior, but to reduce its frequency. This may be cases where the behavior itself is not harmful (but rather its frequency of occurrence), or cases where the behavior simply cannot be eliminated in its entirety (or it is difficult to achieve the absolute disappearance of the behavior).

Example of RDB

Let’s look at an example to illustrate RDB: Let’s think about a child with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) who gets up from the table many times, throughout the class. In this case, we would reinforce him every time “X” period of time (for example, 15 minutes) has elapsed without him getting up.

In line with what we said before, the aim here is for the child to get up less often throughout the class. In this example, standing up is not inappropriate, but it is inappropriate to stand up very often.

Limited response RDB

Like RDA, low rate differential reinforcement also has the following subtype: limited response RDB. In this case, less than “X” response is allowed in a given period of time, and is reinforced if achieved . In other words, the subject is reinforced by emitting less than a certain number of behaviours in a specific period of time.

3. Differential reinforcement of other behaviours (RDOC)

The differential reinforcement of other behaviours, unlike the two previous ones, has a double and simultaneous objective : to decrease the occurrence of certain behaviours and to increase the occurrence of others. It is indicated for those cases where it is necessary to replace the original behaviour by a more adequate or functional one.

In this case, the “other behaviors” to which the name of the reinforcement refers, allude to behaviors that are functionally equivalent to the behavior we want to decrease, but more adaptive.

Example of RDOC

For example, this type of reinforcement could be applied to a child who, instead of speaking, uses shouting to ask for things; in this case, we would reinforce the child every time he asks for things well, when he asks for them by speaking and without raising his voice, and on the other hand, we would not reinforce him when he asks for things by shouting. Thus, we would be applying a differential reinforcement, since we reinforce some behaviours and not others.

4. Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behaviors (RDI)

This type of differential reinforcement is very similar to the previous one; in this case, we have a behavior that we want to diminish or directly eliminate (inappropriate behavior). How would we apply the procedure? By not reinforcing that inappropriate behaviour, and by reinforcing behaviours that are incompatible with the inappropriate behaviour (the latter being appropriate behaviours).

Example of RDI

An example of this type of procedure would be to reinforce a child who, instead of hitting, does a craft. These are behaviors that he cannot do at the same time, because both involve the use of his hands (i.e., they are incompatible behaviors). In addition, while the first (hitting) is inappropriate, the second (doing a craft) is appropriate.

On the other hand, one advantage of RDI is that incompatible behaviors can be more than one (thus we also increase the behavioral repertoire of appropriate behaviors); thus, the goal will be to increase the frequency of appropriate responses and extinguish inappropriate responses.

5. Differential Omission Reinforcement (RDO)

In the differential reinforcement of omission, the subject is reinforced if in a certain time interval the response has not appeared . In other words, the absence of the response or the omission of the response is rewarded. The aim is for the behaviour to decrease in terms of its frequency of appearance.

Example of RDO

To illustrate this type of differential reinforcement, we can think of certain aggressive behaviour, self-harm, etc. In this case, the non-emission of such behaviours (e.g. hitting, self-harming, insulting, etc.) will be reinforced. In other words, is applied for those inappropriate behaviours that we want to eliminate .

If ODR enforcement is effective, we will have an ideal scenario for alternative and adaptive behaviour, as maladaptive behaviour will have disappeared.

Bibliographic references:

  • De Vega, M. (1990). Introduction to Cognitive Psychology. Psychology Alliance. Madrid.
  • Vallejo, B.A. (2012). Manual of Behavioral Therapy. Volumes I and II. Madrid: Dykinson.

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