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Variable Ratio Schedules: Examples & Definition

Instructor: Paul Polanovich
Learn the definition of variable ratio schedules of reinforcement and see everyday examples in order to increase your understanding of how they work. You will have the opportunity to test your knowledge with a short quiz following completion of the lesson.

What are variable ratios schedules of reinforcement?

Like all schedules of reinforcement, variable ratio schedules of reinforcement are an important aspect of operant conditioning. A variety of schedules of reinforcement can be used to reinforce behavior, all possessing their own unique properties. In addition to variable ratio schedules, variable interval, fixed ratio, and fixed interval schedules of reinforcement exist and are used to reinforce behavior.

The easiest way to understand the meaning of variable ratio schedules of reinforcement is to understand the individual words that comprise the concept, variable, ratio, schedule, and reinforcement . These four words individually can have many meanings, but when used together they have a very specific meaning within the context of operant conditioning.

Variable refers to reinforcement being delivered following an average number of responses. In the world of operant conditioning, schedule refers to how often the reinforcement is provided. Reinforcement refers to a reward for engaging in some specific behavior. So, a certain behavior is exhibited when a reinforcer is presented. The concept of reinforcement says that the reinforcer should provide motivation for the behavior to be repeated. A pretty basic example of a schedule of reinforcement would be giving a child a prize of candy every time he cleans his room. This is referred to as a continuous schedule of reinforcement because the reward is provided every time the behavior occurs.

A variable ratio of schedule of reinforcement is a little bit more complex. In a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement the response is delivered on a schedule based on an average number of responses. For example, a variable ratio schedule that is set up to deliver a reinforcer based on an average of 5 responses might deliver reinforcement after the 2nd, 3rd, and 10th responses (5 is the average of 2, 3, and 10). Don't worry, after a couple of examples this will make sense.

Ratio refers to the fact that the reinforcement is delivered following a specific set of behavioral responses. It does not matter how much time has passed (that is what interval schedules of reinforcement are for). When it comes to ratio schedules of reinforcement the only thing that matters is that the behavior occurs a specific number of times.

So, a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement is a schedule of reinforcement wherein a reinforcer is provided following a pre-determined average number of responses. To the responder it can be mysterious as to what the reinforcement schedule actually is, but as we will see from two examples, not knowing when the reinforcer is coming can still be quite reinforcing.

Everyday Examples

Let's look at a couple of examples of variable ratio schedules of reinforcement in everyday life.

Slot Machines

It's pretty safe to say that slot machines can be used to successfully alter human behavior. Go into any casino across the US and you will see people repeatedly pulling the handle or pushing the button over and over again believing that the next pull or button push could result in a big payout. Thanks to variable ratio schedules of reinforcement people will continue to put money in the machine even if they don't initially get rewarded.

Slot machines are pre-set to payout after an average number of responses (handle pulls or button pushes) have been delivered. For instance, if it was set up to payout after an average of 10 responses, you might win some money on the 5th pull, the 12th pull, and the 13th pull (the average of 5, 12, and 13 is 10). This variable ratio schedule of reinforcement results in an exciting experience, since you never really know when the reinforcer is coming. For many people not knowing is what keeps them playing.

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