The Basic Idea
Ask anyone with a dog and they’ll surely admit to using incentives, such as a treat, to teach their dog tricks. You raise your dog’s paw, say “shake,” and perform an overexaggerated shake motion, before showering your dog with over-the-top praise and a treat. After doing this repeatedly for a few months, you realize your dog will now shake your hand even if treats aren’t provided. Learning a new behavior in this way can be explained by continuous reinforcement.
Continuous reinforcement is the repeated reinforcement of a behavior every time it happens. This can involve positive (adding a stimulus) or negative (removing a stimulus) reinforcement, with the goal of encouraging certain actions.
Continuous reinforcement is one of two foundational types of reinforcement schedules. It is most effective when used in the initial stages of learning to implement a strong association between a certain behavior and its consequences.1 The second schedule, partial reinforcement, reinforces a desired behavior occasionally. This schedule can be predictable or unpredictable.
When reinforcement occurs every single time a desired behavior is displayed, associations can be easily made, enabling one to learn quickly. However, in some cases there is a limit to the benefits of continuous reinforcement. Your dog might be less likely to shake your hand when they’ve had too much to eat. Extinction of the learned behavior can materialize quickly when the reinforcement stops.2
Theory, meet practice
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Reinforcement: A consequence applied to encourage a certain behavior to increase the chance of it happening again.
Continuous Reinforcement: A type of learning which reinforces a desired behavior every time it occurs.
Partial Reinforcement: A type of learning which occasionally reinforces a desired behavior after it happens, such as praising a student every other time a question is answered correctly.
Extinction: A process which describes a desired behavior diminishing over time, usually as a result of reinforcement no longer being offered.
Classical Conditioning: A learning technique that unconsciously pairs a stimulus with an automatic behavioral response. When the stimulus is repeated, the automatic behavioral response is eventually learned to be associated with that stimulus.3
Operant Conditioning: A learning technique that employs positive and negative reinforcements in the form of rewards or punishments to encourage an individual to pick up or stop a specific behavior. It is sometimes referred to as instrumental conditioning.3
Early use of the word “reinforcement” can be traced back to the early 1900s, when Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, vaguely explored its impact on strengthening conditioning. Unlike today’s definition, Pavlov used the word to describe strengthening the association of an unconditioned and conditioned stimulus when they are presented together. Pavlov went on to discover classical conditioning, a type of learning which involves continuous reinforcement.4
Studies done by Edward Thorndike in the early 1900s also hinted at the idea of reinforcement. Thorndike developed the Law of Effect after running an experiment which involved placing hungry cats in a puzzle box and observing their attempts to find a food reward. Thorndike realized the cats would eventually learn to repeat efficient behaviors that allowed them to escape faster.5
Thorndike’s Law of Effect states that organisms are more likely to repeat a behavior if it is followed by a pleasant consequence, while organisms are less likely to repeat a behavior if it is followed by an unpleasant consequence. Thorndike’s findings contributed to the development of behaviorism and operant conditioning.
American psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner took the ideas of Thorndike and Pavlov further by investigating reinforcement and its role in operant conditioning. In his 1938 book, The Behavior of Organisms, Skinner explained that reinforcement, such as verbal praise, after displaying a certain behavior can increase the likelihood of the behavior being repeated in the future.
Building on his ideas, Skinner recognized behavior tends to be reinforced multiple times. Together with American psychologist Charles Ferster, further analysis was performed to investigate the ways in which one could arrange reinforcement over time. This led to the formal articulation of continuous reinforcement in their 1957 book, Schedules of Reinforcement. Skinner and Fester’s influential publication outlined two types of reinforcement schedules: continuous and partial reinforcement. The authors further outlined four schedules of partial reinforcement: fixed-ratio, variable-ratio, fixed-interval and variable-interval schedules.6 Today, Skinner and Chester’s schedules of reinforcement remain relevant, with important implications in fields such as education, management and marketing.
A Russian physiologist renowned for his discovery of classical conditioning. Pavlov’s findings were influential in shaping behaviorism as a major school of thought in psychology. Pavlov was one of the first to use the word “reinforcement” to describe a tool that can facilitate learning. Upon realizing the significance of his classical conditioning discovery, Pavlov spent the rest of his career studying this type of learning.7
Burrhus Frederic Skinner
An American psychologist and behaviorist commonly referred to as the father of operant conditioning. Skinner explores the idea of reinforcement many times in his early publications. Skinner’s 1957 book,Schedules of Reinforcement, formally introduced the concept of continuous reinforcement, and other types of reinforcement schedules.9 This publication was highly influential in shaping our understanding of reinforcement in human learning.
Continuous reinforcement has important implications in human learning, language development, and moral development.3 In human learning, continuous reinforcement has contributed to the development of the token economy. A token economy is a system which relies on tokens that continuously reinforce certain behaviors. These tokens can then be redeemed for rewards, or other reinforcers. Due to its rapid effects, this system has been applied to children and psychiatric patients.10
Informal variations of the token economy are commonly used by parents to get children to follow certain rules, whether it is making their bed every morning, refraining from stealing their sibling’s food, or saying thank you to the bus driver. To create an engaging token economy, parents identify a handful of these behaviors to reward. Physically handing a child a token, coin, or sticker every time this behavior is performed creates an immediate tangible effect, a form of continuous reinforcement. After a certain number of tokens are collected by the child, they can be redeemed for rewards such as being able to choose dinner or staying up late.10
Continuous reinforcement also has beneficial effects in shaping skill performance and extinguishing unwanted behaviors in an educational environment. Students who display suboptimal behaviors, such as being late or distracting in class, can be addressed by being ignored by the teacher, rather than being reinforced by attracting the teacher’s attention.10
In our everyday lives, continuous reinforcement does not appear as often as partial reinforcement. Imagine receiving a reward for showing up at work everyday. The reward eventually loses its appeal, and rather than being a satisfactory reward, the loss of the reward can become a larger negative reinforcement. Continuous reinforcement appears less often as it requires more effort to systematically maintain, which can be unrealistic in the long run.2
Continuous reinforcement also appears less frequently as it contains shortcomings which are better addressed by other schedules of reinforcement. Most importantly, research has shown that continuous reinforcement results in subjects responding slower to rewards, compared to when partial reinforcement schedules are used. Continuous reinforcement also has a high rate of extinction. Stopping this reinforcement schedule results in the response disappearing faster than when a partial reinforcement schedule is stopped. This is because the subject gives up when they realize they no longer receive a reward.2
Though continuous reinforcement has its short-term benefits, many prefer the slow rate of extinction in partial reinforcement schedules when teaching behaviors in the long run. Partial reinforcement schedules are less predictable and more realistic to maintain, providing a much more engaging process for a longer period of time.2
Continuous Reinforcement and Social Media
Together with partial reinforcement, continuous reinforcement plays a key role in social media addiction. If “likes” or views are received on our posts, they act as a form of continuous reinforcement. Continuous reinforcement results in the individual learning to enjoy accumulating “likes” or views.
Once this concept is learned, partial reinforcement schedules can further influence this addiction and prevent rapid extinction. This can be observed when an individual notices a post receiving more “likes” than usual. The extra reward acts as a form of partial reinforcement. Since this partial reinforcement is unpredictable, it encourages more posts as the individual does not know if the next post, or next two posts, will result in the pleasant reinforcement of more likes.11
Continuous reinforcement in the short run, combined with partial reinforcement in the long run, are just two of the many factors that can explain an individual’s addiction to social media.
Related TDL Content
Positive Reinforcement: This piece by The Decision Lab explores the consequences and controversies regarding positive reinforcement, a key tool in operant conditioning which has significant effects on human learning.
Why do we work harder when we are promised a reward?: Incentives can be a powerful tool to motivate people to take a certain action, but it can also backfire, resulting in a decrease in one’s motivation instead of increasing it. This article explores the implications of incentivization on our behavior.
Reinforcement Theory: Why do children tend to repeat behaviors when rewarded with stickers and smiley faces on our worksheet? This article explores reinforcement theory in greater detail, observing the theory’s key consequences and criticisms.
Behaviorism: Continuous reinforcement is just one of many concepts emerging from behaviorism, a highly influential theory and school of psychology. Read this TDL article to learn more about this movement and its key players.
- Hulac, D., Benson, N., Nesmith, M. C., & Wollersheim Shervey, S. (2016). Using variable interval reinforcement schedules to support students in the classroom: An introduction with illustrative examples. Journal of Educational Research and Practice, 6(1). https://doi.org/10.5590/jerap.2016.06.1.06
- Cherry, K. (2005, November 8). Reinforcement schedules and how they work. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-a-schedule-of-reinforcement-2794864#:~:text=In%20continuous%20reinforcement%2C%20the%20desired,between%20the%20behavior%20and%20response.&text=Continuous%20reinforcement%20schedules%20are%20most,to%20teach%20a%20new%20behavior
- Cherry, K. (2021, February 20). History and key concepts of behavioral psychology. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/behavioral-psychology-4157183#a-brief-history-of-behaviorism
- Pavlov, I. P. (1928). Lectures on conditioned reflexes: Twenty-five years of objective study of the higher nervous activity (behaviour) of animals. (W. H. Gantt, Trans.). Liverwright Publishing Corporation. https://doi.org/10.1037/11081-000
- Operant conditioning | Boundless psychology. (n.d.). Lumen Learning – Simple Book Production. https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-psychology/chapter/operant-conditioning/
- Ferster, C. B., & Skinner, B. F. (1957). Schedules of reinforcement. Appleton-Century-Crofts. https://doi.org/10.1037/10627-000
- Mcleod, S. (2018). Pavlov’s dogs study and pavlovian conditioning explained. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/pavlov.html#:~:text=Like%20many%20great%20scientific%20advances,classical%20conditioning)%20was%20discovered%20accidentally.&text=During%20the%201890s%2C%20Russian%20physiologist,in%20response%20to%20being%20fed
- Thorndike, E. L. (1927). The law of effect. The American Journal of Psychology, 39, 212–222. https://doi.org/10.2307/1415413
- Ferster, C. B., & Skinner, B. F. (1957). Schedules of reinforcement. Appleton-Century-Crofts. https://doi.org/10.1037/10627-000
- Mcleod, S. (2007, February 5). Operant conditioning (B.F. Skinner). Study Guides for Psychology Students – Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html#sch
- Grieve, R. (2016, July 25). The power of rewards and why we seek them out. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/the-power-of-rewards-and-why-we-seek-them-out-62691