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Variable Ratio Schedule & Examples

A variable-ratio schedule is a random reinforcement where responses are reinforced following varied responses afterward.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
September 15, 2023
min read

What Is a Variable-Ratio Schedule?

A variable-ratio schedule is a random reinforcement where responses are reinforced following varied responses afterward.

Characteristics of Variable-Ratio Schedules

Three characteristics exist under a variable-ratio schedule.

Rewards are given after an unset number of responses are provided. There's no guessing about when rewards are handed out. It could be given immediately after the first response or the sixth one. It's completely random. 

This can lead to higher rates of response in a quick time. When a patient isn't sure when a reward will be provided to them, they'll keep responding every time, hoping that the next time will be the one that brings them the rewards.

It also helps pauses stay very brief after the reinforcement is over. It's about the same as a variable-interval schedule in this manner. Both have very short post-reinforcement pauses.

How to Identify a Variable-Ratio Schedule

When pinpointing reinforcement schedules, it's useful to begin by knowing the name of the schedule. Under a variable-ratio schedule, the word variable is an indicator of reinforcement being delivered following unexpected responses.

The word ratio hints that reinforcement is provided later in a specified amount of responses. Collectively, the variable-ratio schedule is reinforcement being prescribed secondary to a variable amount of responses.

Variable-ratio schedules can be contrasted with fixed-ratio schedules, but better understanding. In the latter, reinforcement is given after.

For instance, an animal could be given a reward for responding every three times as a base average. One of those times, the reward could be administered after the third response, then the sixth, and continuing. 

It'll be a reward for every three responses while being unpredictable to the subject. But in a fixed-ratio schedule, the reinforcement schedule could be set to four, making predictability easier to figure out.

Variable-Ratio Schedule Examples

Here are some examples of what variable-ratio schedule is carried out in different situations.

Example 1

Classrooms are perfect places for conducting a variable-ratio schedule. Students aren't able to tell when they'll be given a reward for turning in their homework. Because of this, more students will turn in their assignments on time than not, especially if the reward is something that the classroom would appreciate.

Example 2

People that play slots at a casino don't do so out of predictability. There's nothing they can do to tell when the winning spin will come, or how many spins it'll take to get there.

They do understand that eventually, at some point, there will be a winning jackpot. It can make quitting the machine difficult and even lead to addiction if players aren't careful.

Example 3

Variable-ratio schedules appear in social media online on two fronts. The first one is when one goes on their accounts not knowing if there will be any new notifications, likes, or comments.

Still, many continue checking throughout the day and night to see if something appears. The second is news feeds and news aggregates. People continue scrolling down the list or refreshing it to see if a new breaking story comes up on their screen.

steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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