Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

Interlocking Patterns of Conditional Probability: The Reinforcement Matrix

Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

Interlocking Patterns of Conditional Probability: The Reinforcement Matrix

Article excerpt


To further integrated behavioral and ecobehavioral models, we introduce the idea of the reinforcement matrix. We define the reinforcement matrix as relatively stable patterns of interlocking contingencies. We can conceptualize this matrix at the ontological level, consisting of varying reinforcement density of dynamic interaction. These interactions occur between interlocking elements of the social and nonsocial environment. Multiple layers of interlocking patterns increase stability and resistance of the ecology to change. These multiple environmental influences act on the organism and lead to gradual shifts in behavior over time. These behavioral shifts are economical in nature based on fluctuations in reinforcement rates, amount of reinforcement, movement toward least effort, and decreasing delay and uncertainty. While relatively stable, the entire process drifts slowly overtime. We identify and discussed factors that lead to this drift. The role of metacontingencies, which can lead to rapid shifts or even disturbances in the matrix are discussed. We make suggestions for the study of communities and the development of technology.


"The experimental analysis of behavior is a rigorous, extensive, and rapidly advancing branch of biology." (Skinner, 1974, p.255)

Behavior is the locus of the interaction between organism and environment (Baum, 1994; Hineline, 1992; Skinner, 1981). Through this interaction behavior is selected ontogenetically by environmental consequences (Campbell, 1956; Kimble, 1961; Skinner, 1953, 1981), which correlate with the occurrence of the behavior over time (Baum, 1973). Thus the nature of reinforcement is primarily to serve the organism as a feedback system (Baum, 1973; Hineline & Wanchissen, 1989; Timerlake, 1993, 1995). In this view, variation of behavior is a natural occurrence. Variations that lead to less effort, increased reinforcement density (i.e., higher pay off or higher amount), or decreased aversive stimulation to which the organism is susceptible are selected for continuation in similar contexts (Herrnstein, 1970; Rachlin, Logue, Gibbon, & Frankel, 1986). For "organism-based theories" (Hineline) this process is called "adaptation. (4)" Variations that correlate with the opposite of the above are selected against recurrence. Also, in novel situations component repertoires can be rapidly integrated in a process called contingency adduction (Andronis, 1983). In this process behavioral classes combine, the product of which then undergoes the selection process (Andronis; Johnson & Layng, 1992; Layng & Andronis, 1984). Moment to moment attempts to maximize the "adaptive" factors may not lead to maximization over time. We call this process melioration (Herrnstein, 1990).

Due to stable environmental elements, relatively stable patterns of interaction form. For example, John Gottman in studying couples discovered that non-distressed couples had a positive to a negative interaction ratio of 5:1 (Gottman, 1993; 1996). In this view we say that the environment-organism-environment system "closed-looped" (Hineline & Wanchissen, 1989) with contexts of high probability of reinforcement increasing the likelihood of responding (stimulus control). As expected, stimulus control degrades at different rates depending on the species (Balda & Kamil, 1989; Krebs, Healy, & Shettleworth, 1990). Interconnecting patterns of stable probability of reinforcement may lead relatively to stable patterns of interaction over time and even the development of bias (Herrnstein, 1990; McDowell, 1989; Snyder & Patterson, 1995). Bias in responding may develop after prolonged exposure to nonequivalent reinforcer parameters (McDowell; Noll, 1995). This is similar to an idea called homeostasis in organism-based theories. Shifts in stable reinforcement effects can have profound effects not just on the target but on all connected to the pattern. …

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