The Effectiveness of a Reinforcer
I’m sure many of you know what a reinforcer is, but to make sure we are all on the same page I am going to start out by giving you the behavioral definition. “A reinforcer is any event that follows a behavior and increases the rate of that behavior.” To make sure that your reinforcer results in the intended function, I am going to supply you with a handy checklist to confirm awareness of the implications the misuse of a reinforcer may have. (Miller, 2006, p. 159)
These four important factors in the use of a reinforcer are: Contingency, Immediacy, Size, and Deprivation. I am going to walk you through each factor with examples of effective, and ineffective, uses of these factors.
“Contingency is the principle stating that a reinforcer be delivered only for the desired behavior, resulting in a more effective reinforcer.” (Miller, 2006, p.231)
Effective Example: You advise your child to clean their room. You can definitively prove that they completed your request from the result of their work, and saw firsthand their attempts at this task. The reinforcer will be more effective because you received confirmation that the desired behavior was directly achieved.
Ineffective Example: You request your child to clean their room; however, you are unable to truly confirm that they were the ones who completed this task. The result may have been a clean room, but if they utilized a sibling in doing so, the reinforcer may be ineffective because the desired behavior may not have been achieved directly by them.
The principle of Immediacy states that “the more immediate the delivery of the reinforcer after the behavior, the more effective the reinforcer.” (Miller, 2006, p. 233)
Effective Example: Your child finished cleaning their room, and you have confirmation under the principle of contingency. You immediately present them with a $5 reward for their effort. This immediate delivery of the reinforcer will have a more impactful result.
Ineffective Example: Your child finished cleaning their room, and you have confirmation under the principle of contingency. You promise your child you will take them to get ice cream next week for completing this task. This reward, although delicious, does not use the principle of immediacy because there is too much time between the completion of the task and the reward.
Size is the third principle of effectiveness. “The more worthwhile the amount of the reinforcer, the more effective the reinforcer.” (Miller, 2006, p. 233)
Effective Example: Your child is learning to read. You advise that if they complete three pages of reading they may play for 10 minutes before continuing on their reading assignment. You know your child loves to play, so this reinforcer will likely meet their size requirements.
Ineffective Example: Your child is learning to read. You advise that if they complete three pages of reading they may play for 2 minutes before continuing on their reading assignment. Your child is indecisive when it comes to choosing a toy to play with, and will likely use the full 2 minutes you have allotted them simply trying to decide what to play with. This is an ineffective reinforcer because the size of the reinforcer is not worthwhile to the child, and could have adverse results when trying to wane them from the activity after only 2 minutes.
“Deprivation is the frequency with which the person has received a particular reinforcer in the recent past.” Maintaining a balance in the delivery of your reinforcers is important to their effectiveness. Satiation is another term that will be helpful in understanding the concept of deprivation. Satiation is the opposite of deprivation, and implies that too much use of the same reinforcement may reduce its effectiveness. (Miller, 2006, p. 234)
Effective Example: Your child hasn’t had M&Ms in almost three weeks! This will likely be a more effective reinforcer because it is their favorite candy, and they have been deprived of this tasty treat for an extended period of time.
Ineffective Example: Your child had a bag of M&Ms after lunch. This candy will be less effective if you try to use them as a reinforcer just 30 minutes later because satiation has taken effect. The M&Ms may not reinforce the desired behavior.
Disclaimer: The reinforcers used in these examples may not be adequate for use on your child. It is important to remember that each child values materials, praise, and rewards differently. You know your child the best, and you can utilize that knowledge to shape their behaviors!
As we have learned, the reinforcement of desired behaviors can be easily misused. To recap, the factors to consider when using reinforcement are: Contingency, Immediacy, Size, and Deprivation. It is imperative that these four ideals are met for a reinforcer to keep its effectiveness, and serve the intended purposed.
Miller, L. K. (2006). Principles of Everyday Behavior Analysis. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.