The Two- and Three-Term Contingencies

Copyright Niki Tudge 20

There is much more to the theory of operant and respondent conditioning that will help us understand our role as a trainer, an employee’s role as a trainee, and the learning process itself. Throughout the book, wherever it is relevant, I will include these concepts and outline them so they are easily understood.

In operant conditioning, the three-term contingency refers to the relationship between the antecedent stimulus, the behavior and the consequence. In respondent conditioning, the two-term contingency refers to the relationship between the two antecedent stimuli. The graphic above shows how these contingencies work and the difference between the two.


What is Reinforcement?

As previously discussed, reinforcement is something a person seeks to obtain, and it something they will work for. This could be verbal praise, personal recognition, a bonus or one of many other options. The value of the reinforcer depends on the employee. Some employees enjoy being publicly recognized, while others would find this very punishing or unpleasant. Primary reinforcers, or unconditioned reinforcers, are intrinsically rewarding in that we do not have to learn to like them. They are biologically important and intrinsic to our survival, such as food, air, safety, and security.

Reinforcers that we come to learn as being of value due to their having been paired with a primary reinforcer are known as secondary reinforcers. It is purely through conditioning that we learn to value them. Take a dollar bill for example. We learn very quickly, as children, that money gives us access to lots of things we really want. Conditioned reinforcers, such as cash, can be used in many situations and have been paired with many different kinds of reinforcement. These are referred to as generalized reinforcers (Chance, 2008, p. 136). All secondary reinforcers, or conditioned reinforcers, owe their effectiveness directly or indirectly to primary reinforcers (Chance, 2008, p.135).

Schedules of Reinforcement

Niki Tudge 2017

When using positive reinforcement, it is not only important to find the correct reinforcement, i.e. one that is of high value to the employee, but to understand how and when to use it. There are many different possible schedules of reinforcement and I have highlighted below the ones I think are most commonly used in the workplace. 

Continuous reinforcement means a behavior is reinforced each time it occurs, i.e. a schedule of one reinforcer for one response. Because each behavior is reinforced the increase in the rate of behavior is rapid. Continuous reinforcement is rare in a natural environment where most behavior is reinforced on an intermittent schedule (Pierce & Cheney, 2004, p.124).

With intermittent schedules of reinforcement only some, not all, behavioral responses are reinforced. Intermittent schedules include ratio schedules of reinforcement and interval schedules of reinforcement. 

Ratio schedules of reinforcement are based on a set number of responses given prior to reinforcement whereas interval schedules operate on a set amount of time having passed prior to reinforcement being delivered. Both ratio and interval schedules can be on a fixed or a variable, random schedule of reinforcement (Pierce & Cheney, 2004).

Other schedules of reinforcement include duration schedules and time schedules. Duration schedules of reinforcement are contingent on a behavior being performed for a period of time. A fixed duration schedule requires the behavior to be performed for a set period of time whereas a variable duration schedule works around some average. Each performance of behavior is reinforced after a different duration. The graph above shows the schedules of fixed ratio, variable ratio, fixed interval and variable interval schedules.