How To Use (And Not Use) Intermittent Reinforcement in Behaviour Modification

Go into any casino and you’ll see rows of people emptying their purse into slot machines, spurred on by random small wins.

Or, if you’re not a gambler, think about the term “addicted to internet porn”. We scroll pages of images or click hundreds of videos, and most aren’t what we’re looking for, but every now and then we come across one that feeds our desire.

That’s intermittent reinforcement, and used in the right way we can get anyone hooked on pretty much anything.

But, now picture the whiney kid in the supermarket trying to break down the parent for a chocolate bar. The parent might say “no” 90% of the time, but the child knows that 10% of the time he/she wins.

That’s intermittent reinforcement too, but it’s having the opposite result to the one we’re hoping for.

Influential behaviourist B.F. Skinner put a rat in a box and by banging on a bar the rat could occasionally get a treat to dispense. Needless to say, the rat spent a lot of time banging on the bar. That’s operant conditioning and the principle of reinforcement. Skinner’s theory was that free will is an illusion. What we do depends a lot on the consequences of what we’ve done in the past.

There’s a saying that “familiarity breeds contempt”. If you constantly and continually reinforce every behaviour you want with a reward, after a while the rewards aren’t as, well, rewarding. In animal training there is what is known as “high value” and “low value” rewards, and if you keep dishing out high value rewards then they quickly lose their value.


Be Aware of Your Rewards and How You Use Them
Be calculating. High value rewards should be fleeting by design.

Don’t Reward Negative Behaviour, Ever
It’s a slippery slope, and theories of intermittent reinforcement clearly explain why. If you’re only consistent for 90% of the time then you’re not consistent, and that can lead to the opposite result to the one you’re hoping for.

Remember That Rewards are a Hook
Use them as a carrot, not a stick. You are not withholding positive reinforcement as a punishment, you are dispensing it as a reward. They might sound like the same thing, but they’re not. Use your rewards to entice and encourage the behaviour you’re looking for.

Intermittent Reinforcement is Intermittent
In Skinner’s experiment, the rat didn’t get a food pellet every time he hit the bar, the rewards might come every 50 hits, or every 5 minutes, or when the researcher was in the room. Intermittent reinforcement is not continuous reinforcement.


• Deviance & Desire – Behavior Modification Using Reinforcement and Punishment
• Deviance & Desire – Tips for Behavior Modification, Conditioning and Development
• Simply Psychology – Skinner: Operant Conditioning
• The Guardian – This Column Will Change Your Life: Get Into the Habit of Random Rewards
• Lip – Love Out Loud
• Elephant Journal – The Narcissist’s One Trick That Can Keep Us Hooked Forever
• The Rawness – The Compliance Recipe, Part 3: Intermittent Rewards
• Psychopaths and Love – The Most Powerful Motivator on the Planet: Intermittent Reinforcement
• B.E.S.T. slave Training – Behavioural Training: Teaching Your Slave to Obey, Serve and Please
• Maybe Maimed but Never Harmed – The Psychology of Conditioning in a D/s Relationship
• FetLife – Behavior Modification

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