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Differential reinforcement aims to get rid of undesirable behaviors by using positive reinforcement in a structured manner to increase desirable behaviors.

Learn about differential reinforcement theory, the different types, and more.

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What Does Differential Reinforcement Look Like?

Imagine that you are observing an interaction between a mother and her son at a grocery store. The mother and child walk past an aisle full of candy. Upon seeing the candy, the child throws a tantrum and begins to scream, ‘I want candy!’ The mother seems unfazed by her child’s behavior and continues to grab items off a nearby shelf.

After a few seconds, the tantrum stops. The child walks up to his mother and asks calmly if he may have a candy bar. The mother tells her son, ‘Thank you for asking politely. You did a good job. Now you can have a candy bar.

‘ The interaction between the mother and child is an example of differential reinforcement.

Differential Reinforcement Theory

Reinforcements and punishments are two tools that are used to modify behavior. Punishments are meant to decrease undesirable behaviors, while reinforcements aim to increase desirable behavior. Though punishments are very useful, they can also cause ethical concerns. For example, people have debated for years whether or not spanking your children as a form of punishment is ethical. In some countries, spanking of any kind is illegal.The goal of differential reinforcement is to increase desirable behaviors and decrease undesirable behaviors without the use of punishments.

Instead of punishments, differential reinforcement uses extinction, which is the removal of the positive reinforcer that maintains the undesirable behavior.When the mother in the example ignored her child’s tantrum, she was practicing extinction. Extinction decreases or reduces undesirable behavior through quick removal of the reinforcer. The reinforcer here was the mother’s attention. Once she stopped paying attention to her son, his tantrum stopped.

Once the child asked for candy politely (the desirable behavior), his mother started paying attention to him (reinforcement), offered him praise (reinforcement), and purchased the candy bar (reinforcement). It is important to note that the reinforcement is only given after the desirable behavior. Differential reinforcement can be thought of as a blend of extinction and reinforcement.

Types of Differential Reinforcement

There are four types of differential reinforcement that are useful in decreasing undesirable behavior. The first one is known as differential reinforcement of lower rates of behavior (DRL).

In DRL, the reinforcement is provided when the undesirable behavior occurs less often than it did before. DRL is useful when you want to decrease the frequency of behavior, but not entirely eliminate it right away. For example, suppose that there is a student that answers on average 30% of his math quiz questions incorrectly. A teacher may give a student verbal praise (reinforcement) if the student misses only 20% of the questions on his next quiz (reduction in frequency).

The second type is known as differential reinforcement of other behavior (DRO). In DRO, the reinforcement is provided when the undesirable behavior has not occurred or is absent during a specified period of time. DRO is useful when you want to directly reduce undesirable behavior.

For example, a parent tells their teenage daughter that for each week that she does not skip class (absence of undesirable behavior), the daughter will receive an extra $20 in her allowance (reinforcement). The undesirable behavior is skipping class.The third type is called differential reinforcement of alternative behavior (DRA).

In DRA, the reinforcement is provided when a more desirable behavior is observed. DRA is very useful when you are teaching someone desirable behaviors to replace more undesirable ones. In DRA, the desirable and undesirable behaviors do not have to be incompatible. For example, a student who normally gets up out of his seat without permission (undesirable behavior) might receive a gold star from the teacher (reinforcement) when he raises his hand and asks for permission before getting out of his seat (desirable behavior).Finally, the fourth type is known as differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior (DRI). In DRI, the reinforcement is provided when a different behavior that is not compatible with the undesirable behavior is observed.

For example, a student will receive an award (reinforcement) for attending classes (different incompatible behavior). Skipping classes is the undesirable behavior. Attending class is not compatible with skipping class because it is impossible for the two to occur at the same time.

Attending class will result in a reduction in skipping class.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. Reinforcements are used in order to increase desirable behaviors, while punishments are used to decrease behaviors.

Extinction is the removal of the positive reinforcer that maintains the undesirable behavior; because of ethical concerns, extinction is often preferred over punishments.Differential reinforcement is used to increase desirable behaviors and decrease undesirable behaviors by combining reinforcements and extinction. There are four types of differential reinforcement: differential reinforcement of lower rates, differential reinforcement of other behaviors, differential reinforcement of alternative behaviors, and differential reinforcement of incompatible behaviors.

So, the next time you find yourself wanting to decrease someone’s behavior, try using differential reinforcement instead of punishment. You might be amazed at the result.

Learning Outcomes

You should have the ability to do the following after this lesson:

  • Define reinforcements, punishments and extinction
  • Recall why extinctions are preferred over punishments
  • Explain what differential reinforcement is
  • Describe the four types of differential reinforcement

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