IN SEARCH OF THE EVERYDAY VARIABLE RATIO
variable-ratio schedule of reinforcement,
we can only assume that the more often
we attempt, the more often the response
will produce a reinforcer.
A door-to-door salesperson works under
a variable-ratio schedule of reinforcement. Let us assume such a salesperson, selling brushes, calls on a particular house. After hearing his finest sales
talk, the woman answering the door lets
him know she is more than amply
stocked. The salesperson leaves and
knocks on the next door. The salesperson meets again with failure. Perhaps
he calls on 20 houses in a row but
doesn't sell even a toothbrush. At the
next house, the housekeeper fairly
drags him through the door. "I've been
waiting for you for months," the housekeeper says, and then proceeds to
place an order for 50 of his finest items.
The salesperson leaves the house and
stops at the next house, where also a
person is waiting for the salesperson's
We can see that the salesperson is operating on a variable-ratio schedule. Behind each new door lurks a possibility
for a long-awaited order, and so the
salesperson pushes on. As any other
behavior would extinguish, selling would
extinguish if reinforcement were not
available. Thus, although the salesperson's behavior is on a variable-ratio
schedule, reinforcement must occur often enough to maintain the behavior.
I am having to remove this example of
an everyday variable-ratio schedule of
reinforcement from EPB 4.0 because a
student correctly pointed out that it ain't,
at least it ain't simple. Not only is it rule
governed, but also the response unit
(each individual reinforceable response,
like the lever press) really consists of a
very elaborate stimulus-response chain.
And, undoubtedly, the behavior is under
the control of some sort of avoidance
analog. Furthermore, this is probably
best viewed as a discrete-trial procedure
rather than the more typical free-operant
procedure where we usually think about
the application of variable-ratio schedules.
1) Unfortunately, I haven't been able to
come up with a clean, everyday variable
ratio example. If you've got one for me,
I'd sure appreciate it. By the way, please
don't send a gambling example; I've already eliminated that one from EPB 3.0,
where I also explain why.
2) A clear behavior mod. example would
also be great.
The way the world pays off for one attempt and fails to pay off for another has
produced the old saying "If at first you
don't succeed, try, try again." On the
January 3, 2014
i) Answer in terms of stimulus
control, with the recent delivery of a reinforcer acting as
a) Gambling in the Skinner box:
i) Design a Skinner box experiment for a chimpanzee where
the contingencies are as
much like those for human
gambling as possible.
ii) Also have the act of the responding, itself, function as an
SD for more responding.
iii) Show how your explanation
correctly predicts the lack of
following variable-ratio schedules.
ii) What changes would you
have to make, if your subject
were a pigeon, instead of a
b) Why do fixed-ratio schedules
January 3, 2014