Operant Conditioning: Reinforcement Schedules – MCAT Psychology | MedSchoolCoach

Operant Conditioning: Reinforcement Schedules

MCAT Psychology - Chapter 5 - Section 1 - Learning - Associative Learning
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Sample MCAT Question - Operant Conditioning: Reinforcement Schedules

Many people are addicted to playing slot machines because:

a) slot machines offer high rewards.

b) slot machines offer rewards on a variable basis.

c) slot machines are easily won.

d) slot machines are easily lost.

B is correct. Gambling and slot machines follow a variable-ratio schedule. Slot machines reward players on a variable basis, which encourages people to continue playing because there is a possibility of reinforcement on the next turn. Answer choice A is incorrect because though it is true, it does not fully capture why people are incentivized to continually play slot machines. Answer choice C is incorrect because many slot machines are not easily won. Answer choice D is incorrect because it restates the question rather than answering what causes the high and consistent response rate of slot machine playing.

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Reinforcement Schedules for the MCAT

Reinforcement schedules are a fundamental concept in psychology that explores the ways in which behavior is shaped and maintained through rewards. Grounded in the principles of operant conditioning, reinforcement schedules investigate the timing and frequency of reinforcement in influencing the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. This area of study delves into the intricacies of different schedules, such as fixed ratio, variable ratio, fixed interval, and variable interval, and examines their effects on motivation, persistence, and the development of habits. By understanding the nuances of reinforcement schedules, psychologists gain valuable insights into human and animal behavior, as well as practical applications in areas like education, therapy, and behavioral modification.


In operant conditioning, an animal is presented with a reinforcement or punishment in order to manipulate the frequency of a behavior. However, every occurrence of a behavior does not need to be rewarded to prevent the extinction of a behavior. Instead, a behavior can be reinforced after a specific number of performances or a specific amount of time. Such reinforcement patterns are referred to as reinforcement schedules. There are four different types of reinforcement schedules covered on the MCAT: fixed ratio, variable ratio, fixed interval, and variable interval reinforcement schedules.

Fixed Ratio

In a fixed ratio reinforcement schedule, reinforcement occurs after a fixed number of behavioral responses. For example, a rodent could be given a reward after every single lever press, or after every seventh lever press, or any number of lever presses.

Variable Ratio

 In this reinforcement schedule, rewards are given after a variable number of behavioral responses. The stimulus will be added after a behavior occurs, but there is no set number at which it will occur. For example, winning a casino slot machine occurs after an indeterminable and random number of attempts. This form of reinforcement schedule results in a high and consistent response rate and is the most effective way to condition an animal to perform a behavior.


Fixed Interval

This reinforcement schedule is when reinforcement occurs after a fixed amount of time has elapsed. For example, we might train a rodent to press a lever by rewarding their level-pressing behavior every five minutes. This is the least effective reinforcement schedule of the four, as an animal can simply wait for a specific interval to pass and be rewarded.

Variable Interval

With variable interval reinforcement schedules, reinforcement occurs after a variable amount of time has passed. For example, we might reward a rodent after 3, 10, and then 27 minutes. This schedule will produce a moderate, steady response pattern.

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