Variable Ratio Reinforcement


NOTE: Because of a new job, I have started posting on Saturdays instead of Fridays.

The term variable ratio reinforcement is used in psychology to refer to the subject getting reinforcement to a behavior, and the reinforcement varies with different amounts of input.  For example, a rat may be given a food pellet after pressing the button two times, then six times, and then four times.  If after a while there no food pellets are provided, the rat keeps pressing the button thinking that eventually there will be more food.  The same principle applies to humans with slot machines.

This can be contrasted to continuous reinforcement, where the food pellet is provided always after four pressed of the button.  Then the food stops, the rat stops pressing the button.  Because it was so predictable, the rat just gives up.  There is actually more reinforcement with variable reinforcement than with constant and consistent positive reinforcement.

But what does this have to do with love and marriage?

Well, if my wife expects and gets tulips every Valentine’s Day, or candy, she grows to expect them.  She may even come to hint with reminders as the date approaches.  But there is not much reinforcement or return on the investment to the giver.  And if I stop giving because of the lack of return, she soon gives up on expecting them in the future.

However, if I give her tulips on days when there is no expectation, but do it on a variable schedule, there indeed is a positive reinforcement with a corresponding positive return.  This applies to leaving loving notes where they will be found by the wife, making coffee, or accomplishing a household task.  Now I wouldn’t say you should play your wife like a slot machine, just that unexpected and unpredictable positive actions get more response.

This also applies to some obsessive behaviors.  For example, take obsessive worrying.  Even though the obsessive worrying as a whole accomplishes nothing good and only makes the person anxious, there are those infrequent occasions when the worrying led to some solution that relieved the anxiety.  This in turn reinforces the person to continue obsessive worry even though it is uncomfortable and unproductive.

Another example is when we tend to obsessively relive an awkward moment.  In general we feel all the more uncomfortable when we obsessively replay the video in our mind of the awkward moment.  But the fact that on occasion we had an insight that resulted in our not feeling so rejected or incompetent – reinforcement – leads us to continue to obsessively replay many awkward moments.

I see that I need to plan tulips and notes when and where they are not expected.  And I see that I need to avoid obsessive worries or obsessive thoughts of reliving bad moments.  What about you?  I think everyone could make a step forward in these same areas – give it a try.

thanks for the image to


About Mark Gredler

I want to move from Good Love to Better Love, share it, and share the Best Love of God. I like ancient and medieval history, especially of Spain. I like photographing Spanish fiestas, and visiting Romanesque churches, from the 11th to 13th centuries. I enjoy traveling, seeing new places, meeting new friends, taking photographs of that, and want to write more about it all.
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