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

A very versatile type of reinforcement to be applied in therapy or education.

Differential reinforcement

Within the behavior modification techniques, we find a great 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 know 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 consists of reinforcing only some behaviors while others are put under extinction (they are not reinforced so that they are extinguished), or in reinforcing certain behaviors 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. Reinforcement implies administering a positive stimulus or withdrawing a negative one when a certain action is performed, which increases the probability of a certain behavior occurring. 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 their characteristics and what they 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 time has elapsed since the previous response. That is, what is sought is that the answer increases its appearance rate, and appears more often.

RDA example

An example that illustrates an RDA is an adolescent who finds it difficult to be assertive (ie, it is difficult to speak her mind, say “no”, defend her rights, etc.) In this case, the way to apply a 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 elapsed between assertive behaviors.

Thus, in relation to this case, an assertive behavior would be, for example, saying “no” to the request of a favor that we do not want to do, or saying a personal opinion against what the majority thinks, in order to defend a personal interest. , etc.

Limited response RDA

RDA has 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 reinforcement (RDB)

This second type of reinforcement is the opposite of RDA. In this case, the answer is reinforced if a certain time has passed since the previous answer. That is to say, what is intended is that the behavior reduces its frequency, decreases and appears more widely in time.

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

RDB example

Let’s look at an example to illustrate RDB: let’s think of a child with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) who gets up many times from the table, throughout the class. In this case, we would reinforce him every time “X” period of time elapsed (for example, 15 minutes) without him having performed the action of getting up.

In line with what we said previously, the aim here is for the child to get up less times throughout the class. In this example, getting up itself is not inappropriate behavior, but getting up too often 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 it is reinforced if it is achieved. That is, the subject is reinforced by emitting less than a certain number of behaviors in a specific period of time.

3. Differential reinforcement of other behaviors (RDOC)

Differential reinforcement of other behaviors, unlike the previous two, has a dual and simultaneous objective : to 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 a more adequate or functional one.

In this case, the “other behaviors” referred to by the name of reinforcement, refer to behaviors that are functionally equivalent to the behavior that 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 yelling 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 contrary, we would not reinforce him when he asks for things by shouting. Thus, we would be applying a differential reinforcement, since we reinforce some behaviors and others not.

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

RDI example

An example of this type of procedure would be to reinforce a child who, instead of hitting, makes 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). Also, while the first (pasting) is inappropriate, the second (making a craft) is appropriate.

On the other hand, an advantage that 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 goal 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 response has not appeared within a certain time interval. That is, the absence of the answer or the omission of it is rewarded. The goal 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-harm, etc. In this case, the non-emission of said behaviors will be reinforced (for example hitting, self-harm, insulting, etc.). In other words, it applies to inappropriate behaviors that we want to eliminate.

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

Bibliographic references:

  • De Vega, M. (1990). Introduction to cognitive psychology. Psychology Alliance. Madrid.
  • Vallejo, MA (2012). Behavior Therapy Manual. Volume I and II. Madrid: Dykinson.

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