Intermittent reinforcement

“I want you to take a trip back in time with me.

There is a laboratory, there are scientists, and there are rats. I want you to imagine that there is a rat in a cage. And there is a lever in a cage. Every time this rat pushes the lever, a pellet of food is released. The rat keeps interested in the lever but only when hungry. Normal dynamic. Hungry, push the lever, food comes out, satisfied. All is well.

Obviously, after doing this for some time, scientists become curious. What happens if the rat pushes the lever, no pellet comes out. Eventually, the rat loses interest, goes on to preoccupy itself doing other things. All is well.

What do these two experiments have in common? There is consistency in terms of the pattern that the rat perceives. Either it pushes the lever, and a pellet comes out, which is consistency, or it pushes the lever and a pellet doesn’t come out, which is also consistency.This consistency is referred to as continuous reinforcement.

So naturally, scientists become interested once again. What happens if they create inconsistency in the experiment. What happens when the rat pushes the lever, occasionally, randomly and unpredictably, a pellet comes out. They assumed that eventually, the rat would  become so frustrated that it would lose interest with the lever. In fact, the exact opposite occurred. The rat became absolutely, anxiously obsessed with the lever, it kept pressing on it, and pressing on it; it had created an addiction with the lever. Surprise!

What happened when after introducing the intermittent reinforcement, pellets stopped coming out entirely. Surely the rat would lose interest then? No. The opposite occurred. If the rat received random pellets, once the pellet stopped completely, the rat remained completely obsessively controlling over that lever. Regardless of whether the rat was getting nothing at all, or an occasional pellet, it continued pressing onto the lever. In addition it neglected its grooming habits and his health deteriorated completely. Wow!”

If we apply this to healthy relationships, consistent reinforcement is the only way to go. 🙂

Inspired by Teal Swan.