Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Choice in Humans: Techniques for Enhancing Sensitivity to Reinforcement Immediacy

Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Choice in Humans: Techniques for Enhancing Sensitivity to Reinforcement Immediacy

Article excerpt

Although a preference for immediate over delayed reinforcement is routinely observed in studies of choice in nonhumans, similar effects have been difficult to demonstrate in normal adult humans (Navarick, 1986). One interpretation has been that adults may be much less sensitive than nonhumans to prereinforcer delay (Logue, Pena-Correal, Rodriguez, & Kabela, 1986), a view that would limit the generality of diverse models of choice that emphasize delay of reinforcement as a controlling variable. For example, Delay Reduction Theory (Fantino, Preston, & Dunn, 1993) maintains that the strength of a stimulus as a conditioned reinforcer depends on the reduction in time to primary reinforcement that is signaled by onset of the stimulus. The time to primary reinforcement is measured from the onset of the preceding stimulus, and the degree of delay reduction is measured by the interval between presentation of the initial stimulus and the subsequent one. Another influential theory, Mazur's (1995) hyperbolic-decay model, disregards temporal context and essentially relates the strength of a reinforcer to the reciprocal of the delay between the target response and delivery of the reinforcer. While both models incorporate additional variables, such as amount of reinforcement, the effects of these variables are said to be modulated by temporal parameters, a questionable emphasis if humans are so much less sensitive to delay than nonhumans.

Another interpretation of the data is that adults' apparent indifference to delay is methodological in origin and implies a lack of functional equivalence between the researcher's procedures and those used in comparable studies with nonhumans. From this perspective, the demonstration of a basic preference for immediate over delayed reinforcement, with other schedule parameters held constant, could serve as evidence that one's procedures have been successfully "calibrated" for tests of more complex and interesting predictions of animal models. The present study assessed the potential usefulness of a research strategy comprising two major features: the delivery of an immediately consumable (intrinsic) positive reinforcer (videos), and the presentation of instructions that inform subjects of the variables to be manipulated during the session.

The strongest effect of reinforcement immediacy is demonstrated by impulsive choice behavior, wherein an immediately delivered, small reinforcer is chosen over a delayed, large reinforcer. To date, consistent impulsivity for most adults has been found only in studies using negative reinforcement by noise termination (Navarick, 1982; Solnick, Kannenberg, Eckerman, & Waller, 1980). A weaker effect of reinforcement immediacy is exhibited by reduced impulsivity (e.g., indifference between immediate, small and delayed, large reinforcers) together with a preference for immediate over delayed reinforcement with the amounts and rates of reinforcement equal. This outcome has occurred in studies using the intrinsic positive reinforcers of video game playing (Millar & Navarick, 1984) and the viewing of slides of celebrities (Navarick, 1986; 1987). Negligible sensitivity to reinforcement immediacy and a preference for the large, delayed reinforcer (self-control) is the typical outcome when subjects respond for points exchangeable for money after the session (Flora & Pavlik, 1992; Hyten, Madden, & Field, 1994; Logue et al., 1986). A preference for immediate point reinforcement is found only when such behavior serves to increase the total number of points accumulated across trials due to a procedural confound that allows more frequent access to the immediate than to the delayed reinforcer. The reinforcer examined in the present study was videos derived from popular TV programs. The colorful, continuously changing visual content combined with audio consisting of voice and/or music suggested that the videos would have strong reinforcing effects without creating the discomfort or stress typical of negative reinforcers (cf. …

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