Intermittent Reinforcement and Its Effects in Everyday Life

We all enjoy being rewarded for our behavior. Furthermore, being rewarded increases the probability that we'll repeat the behavior. However, it doesn't have to be rewarded all the time for us to repeat it frequently. This is known as intermittent reinforcement.
Intermittent Reinforcement and Its Effects in Everyday Life

Written by Elena Sanz

Last update: 26 October, 2022

Although you don’t always realize it, your behavior is conditioned by environmental circumstances. In fact, the behaviors that you repeat have often been rewarded or encouraged in some way, while those you avoid have frequently been penalized or punished. These positive or negative contingencies are sometimes subtle and you don’t perceive them, but they have great influence. Among them, one of the most powerful is intermittent reinforcement.

This type of dynamic mediates many addictions (for example, gambling), but also has an effect on your personal relationships, work performance, and consumption habits. Furthermore, the effect that receiving rewards discontinuously has on the brain is well recognized by companies.

Person playing slot machines
Intermittent reinforcement favors the repetition of certain behaviors to maintain them in the long term.

Reinforcements and punishments for behavior modification

To understand intermittent reinforcement, we refer to B.F. Skinner’s work on behaviorism. His theory proposed that behavior is controlled by environmental contingencies. Therefore, it’s possible to modify behavior by applying reinforcements or punishments.

Reinforcements are those that constitute a positive consequence for the individual. Consequently, they cause the emitted behavior to be repeated and maintained. They can be of two types:

  • Positive reinforcements. A prize or a reward is provided as a result of the behavior. For example, when you’re praised or thanked for a job well done.
  • Negative reinforcements. An aversive or unpleasant stimulus is withdrawn as a result of the behavior. For instance, employees who achieve the best sales don’t have to work on Friday afternoons.

In the case of punishment, the aim is to reduce or eliminate a specific behavior. Thus, positive punishment occurs when an unpleasant stimulus is given. For example, when you scold your child for bad behavior. Alternatively, negative punishment is given when a pleasant stimulus is withdrawn. For instance, when points are deducted from a driving license for committing a traffic violation.

Intermittent reinforcement

Reinforcement can be applied in different ways and following different schedules. Continuous reinforcement occurs when the reward is obtained whenever the desired behavior is emitted. On the other hand, intermittent reinforcement takes place when the reward is only received on certain occasions after having emitted the behavior, and not at others.

At first glance, it might seem that this dynamic would make you lose interest. After all, seeing that you didn’t receive the reward, you might think you’d choose to stop trying. However, in reality, the opposite happens: you become obsessed and keep repeating the behavior with far more energy and interest than if you always received the prize. In fact, intermittent reinforcement is one of the most effective ways of maintaining long-term behavior.

Intermittent reinforcement in daily life

Intermittent reinforcement is the kind that’s delivered inconsistently and occasionally. Indeed, this is what makes it so addictive.  Nevertheless, with continuous reinforcement, which you receive every time you perform a certain behavior, you usually end up losing interest.

For instance, if you’re praised at work every day, those words soon start to sound empty and stop acting as a reinforcement. In the same way, if you reward your child with chocolate every time they clean their room, they’ll get pretty fed up with it and it’ll lose its effect.

On the other hand, when the reinforcement is delivered intermittently, it generates expectation, desire, and a certain degree of anxiety. This leads you to make an effort and stay alert to be able to get that long-awaited reward that you had before and want to get again.

These types of reinforcement programs are present in many everyday situations. Here are some examples:

  • When companies propose performance bonuses and sales incentives for their workers.
  • Slot machines. Sometimes, they deliver a win, but most of the time they don’t.
  • Social networks. For instance, TikTok shows really eye-catching and entertaining videos, mixed in with many others that the user doesn’t like so much.
  • In personal relationships. It’s used frequently, especially in the raising of children. It’s also used among adults. For example, when we give words of thanks or recognition to our loved ones.
Man feeling like I feel like I'm not good enough for my partner
There are relationships in which one partner uses intermittent reinforcement to control the other.

Intermittent reinforcement can be both healthy and unhealthy

Using intermittent reinforcement can be really helpful if done in a healthy and conscious way. For example, it can help motivate employees, instill good habits in children, and make others feel valued. On the downside, it can also cause addictions and emotional dependency.

For example, the search for occasional reinforcement can often lead us to squander our savings on gambling or get hooked on destructive relationships. It also occurs in those kinds of relationships where a partner occasionally offers ‘the moon’ and at other times is cold and indifferent. In these cases, it’s due to intermittent reinforcement that the other partner expects the nice behavior to return at any minute.

As such, it’s important and helpful to understand what dynamics move us and why we do what we do. It helps us to put things in perspective and decide what’s best for us at any given time.

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  • KendallS. B. (1974Preference for intermittent reinforcementJournal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 21:463–73.
  • Skinner, B. F. (2019). The behavior of organisms: An experimental analysis. BF Skinner Foundation.

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