Differential Reinforcement: Theory & Definition

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  • 0:05 What Does Differential…
  • 0:40 Differential…
  • 2:18 Types of Differential…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

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.

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.

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