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Effects of reinforcement on behavioral variability

The effect of reinforcement and extinction on behavioral variability and the effects reinforcement and punishment have on rule-governed insensitivity.

We study the effect of reinforcement and extinction on behavioral variability. 

There is abundant evidence that behavioral variability is more predominant when reinforcement is contingent on it than when it is not, but identifying the underlying mechanisms in a variability contingency is intricate. 

We question whether direct reinforcement is the most satisfactory view or whether variability is more effectively or pragmatically considered as a derivative of other fundamental processes. 

In addition, we study the effects of reinforcement and punishment on rule-governed insensitivity, as this insensitivity often leads to repetitive behavior.  

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    A consequence is defined as reinforcing when it increases the probability that a response class will reoccur in a similar situation. 

    For that reason, research on reinforcement has shown that it produces efficient and usually quite repetitive behavior.

    The widely accepted theory presented by Page and Neuringer in their 1985 article “Variability is an operant”, where they suggest that variability may be directly reinforced, therefore seems somewhat of an oxymoron. 

    How can reinforcement increase both repetitive and variable behavior?

    In an extensive review, which David Palmer has called a masterpiece, Nergaard and Holth (2020) argued that the increased variability is more effectively and pragmatically considered as a derivative of other fundamental processes in the contingency, predominantly extinction and resurgence. 

    The 2020-article is a conceptual paper. We need research findings to corroborate our argument. This has been shown to be difficult as all reinforcing contingencies include reinforcement and extinction.

    Separating the effect of the two is therefore intricate. 

    Another field where repetition and variability has been found to differ is Rule-governed insensitivity.

    This insensitivity is the well documented finding that humans given instructions or rules on how to perform a task does not necessarily contact the direct contingency and therefore do not change behavior accordingly when the contingency changes, something non-human animals do.

    The name “Rule-governed insensitivity” is somewhat of a misnomer. It is an insensitivity to the direct contingency, while following the rule, and as such “Direct-contingency insensitivity” would have been more appropriate. 

    Surprisingly, there has been little research on how this insensitivity is affected when humans receive reinforcement for following the rule, or when punished for straying from the rule. 

    Nergaard and Couto (2021) published an article on this topic, with individuals, in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. Later, there have also been experiments performed with groups and “groups over generations”.