Intermittent Reinforcement


Intermittent Reinforcement is a term in psychology that refers to a type of conditioning where a behavior is reinforced or rewarded inconsistently and unpredictably. This pattern is distinguished by the fact that the desired behavior is not rewarded each time it is demonstrated but only at certain intervals or after a certain number of instances. It is a powerful tool in maintaining learned behaviors and is considered more resistant to extinction than continuous reinforcement.

Different Types of Intermittent Reinforcement

Fixed-Ratio Schedule

In a fixed-ratio schedule, reinforcement is provided after a certain number of responses. For example, in a factory setting, a worker might be rewarded after every tenth product they produce.

Variable-Ratio Schedule

A variable-ratio schedule delivers reinforcement after an unpredictable number of responses. This schedule is often used in scenarios like gambling, where the reward isn’t achieved after every play, creating a sense of anticipation.

Fixed-Interval Schedule

In a fixed-interval schedule, the first response is rewarded only after a specified amount of time has passed. For instance, a monthly paycheck is an example of this schedule.

Variable-Interval Schedule

Variable-interval schedules provide reinforcement for the first response after a varying time interval. Checking your email or social media feed for updates is an example of this type of reinforcement.



Perhaps one of the most classic examples of intermittent reinforcement is found in gambling. Slot machines, for example, operate on a variable-ratio schedule of reinforcement. Players don’t know when they will hit the jackpot, and it’s this uncertainty that keeps them pulling the lever. This thrill of potential reward keeps them engaged and encourages continual play.

Social Media Usage

In today’s digital age, the use of social media provides another example. Users often check their social media feeds regularly in the hopes of discovering interesting updates, or receiving likes or comments on their posts. These rewards are not guaranteed each time they log in, which creates a form of intermittent reinforcement, leading to habitual and sometimes addictive behavior.

Parenting and Education

Intermittent reinforcement is often seen in parenting and educational settings as well. For instance, a parent might not always buy a toy for their child when they behave well during a shopping trip. However, occasional reinforcement of good behavior with a reward can encourage the child to behave well consistently, even when a reward is not guaranteed.

Similarly, in an educational setting, a teacher might not always praise a student when they answer a question correctly. Still, intermittent praise can motivate the student to participate actively in all classes, as they’re uncertain when the next positive reinforcement may come.

Sales and Marketing

Intermittent reinforcement is frequently used in sales and marketing strategies as well. For example, customers who shop online may occasionally receive discount codes or special offers. The unpredictability of when these rewards will appear encourages customers to check the website regularly and make repeat purchases.

Through these examples, it’s clear that intermittent reinforcement can be a powerful tool in shaping and maintaining certain behaviors. It is the unpredictability of the reward that fuels the persistence of the behavior, making the subject eager to perform in anticipation of possible reinforcement.

The Power of Intermittent Reinforcement

Intermittent reinforcement is considered to be the most effective method to maintain a learned behavior. The unpredictability of the reward keeps the subject motivated and engaged, preventing habituation or disinterest that can result from continuous reinforcement.

Criticisms and Limitations

While powerful, intermittent reinforcement is not without its drawbacks. It may lead to frustration due to the unpredictability of the rewards, and it might not be effective in teaching new behaviors as compared to continuous reinforcement.


Understanding the principles of intermittent reinforcement can have wide-ranging implications, from developing effective training programs to understanding human motivation. The power of intermittent reinforcement lies in its unpredictability, which can lead to a stronger and more persistent response.