Differential Reinforcement: What It Is And How It Is Used In Psychology

Differential reinforcement

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, differential reinforcement, aimed at eliminating or reducing behaviors while others are enhanced. We will learn about 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 behavior modification techniques (behavioral psychology), which It consists of only reinforcing some behaviors while others are put under extinction (they are no longer reinforced so that they become extinct), or in reinforcing certain behaviors 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, to understand differential reinforcement, that the concept of reinforcement is clear. Reinforce implies administer a positive stimulus or withdraw a negative one when a certain action is performed, which increases the probability of occurrence of a certain behavior. For example, a reinforcement can be a compliment (verbal reinforcement), a cookie (primary reinforcement), a caress (social reinforcement), an afternoon at the movies, more time watching television, more time with friends, etc.

Types, with examples

There are several types of differential reinforcement depending on its characteristics and what you 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 amount of time has passed since the previous response. That is, what is sought is for the response to increase its rate of appearance, and appear more frequently.

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RDA example

An example that illustrates an RDA is a teenager who has a hard time being assertive (that is, she has a hard time saying what she thinks, saying “no,” standing up for her rights, etc.). In this case, the way to apply 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 little time has passed between the assertive behaviors.

Thus, in relation to this case, assertive behavior would be, for example, saying “no” when asked for a favor that we do not want to do, or saying a personal opinion contrary to what the majority thinks, with the aim of defending a personal interest. , etc.

Limited Response RDA

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

2. Low Rate Differential Boosting (RDB)

This second type of reinforcement is opposite to RDA. In this case, the response is reinforced if a certain time has passed since the previous response. That is to say, What is intended is that the behavior reduces its frequency decrease and appear more spaced out over time.

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

RDB example

Let’s see an example to illustrate the 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 passed (for example, 15 minutes) without him having performed the action of getting up.

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In line with what we said previously, the goal here is for the child to get up fewer times throughout the class. In this example, getting up in itself is not inappropriate behavior, but doing it too frequently is.

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. That is, the subject is reinforced for emitting less than a certain number of behaviors in a specific period of time.

3. Differential reinforcement of other behaviors (RDOC)

The differential reinforcement of other behaviors, unlike the previous two, has a double and simultaneous objective: decrease the occurrence of certain behaviors and increase the occurrence of others. It is indicated for those cases where it is necessary to replace the original behavior with another more appropriate or functional one.

In this case, the “other behaviors” referred to in the name of reinforcement refer to behaviors that are functionally equivalent to the behavior we want to reduce, but more adaptive.

RDOC Example

For example, this type of reinforcement could be applied with a child who, instead of talking, uses screams 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 differential reinforcement, since we reinforce some behaviors and not others.

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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 reduce or directly eliminate (misconduct). How would we apply the procedure? Not reinforcing that inappropriate behavior, and reinforcing behaviors that were incompatible with the inappropriate behavior (the latter being appropriate behaviors).

ROI example

An example of this type of procedure would be to reinforce a child who, instead of hitting, does a craft. These are behaviors that you cannot perform at the same time, because both involve the use of your hands (that is, they are incompatible behaviors). Furthermore, while the first (pasting) is inappropriate, the second (making a craft) is appropriate.

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

5. Differential reinforcement of omission (RDO)

In differential reinforcement of omission, the subject is reinforced if the answer has not appeared within a certain time interval. That is, the absence of the answer or its omission is rewarded. The objective is for the behavior to decrease in terms of its frequency of appearance.

RDO example

To illustrate this type of differential reinforcement, we can think of certain aggressive behaviors, self-injury, etc. In this case, the non-emission of said behaviors (for example hitting, self-harm, insults, etc.) will be reinforced. That is to say, It is applied to those inappropriate behaviors that we want to eliminate.

If the application of RDO is effective, we will have an ideal scenario to establish alternative and adaptive behavior, since the maladaptive behavior will have disappeared.

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