8. Time Out from Reinforcement

The time-out from reinforcement procedure is a mild aversive consequence that involves, as its name implies, the removal of all potential reinforcing stimuli.  This technique is typically applied to the individual contingent on the occurrence of a maladaptive behavior.  The technique may be applied in one of two basic manners: either the individual is removed to a barren place devoid of reinforcing stimuli, or the stimuli that is reinforcing the deviant behavior in the individual is removed from his/her immediate presence.  Thus, the isolation procedure in the Burchard and Tyler (1965) study previously cited is an example of the removal of the individual in the application of the time-out procedure.

The time-out procedure was given its name by Ferster, who systematically studied some of its aspects (Ferster, 1957, 1958).  For example, Ferster (1958) demonstrated that giving a time-out has many of the effects of more conventional aversive events on the individual’s behavior.

According to Verhave (1962), the removal of the reinforcement usually involves the removal of stimuli associated with its presence (conditioned positive reinforcers), since presentation of a reinforcer is very brief in temporal duration.  Furthermore, the fact that time-out is an aversive event has been discussed by Leitenberg (1965) in his review of the empirical evidence.  Leitenberg stated that “the most convincing evidence that TO [time-out] is aversive comes from those studies demonstrating escape from stimuli which previously set the occasion for nonreinforcement” (1965, p. 439).

As reported by Risley (1968), however, time-out is not as effective an aversive event as electric shock in decelerating dangerous climbing behavior, for instance, in an autistic child.  Nevertheless, in the Risley study (1968) time-out was effective in reducing the frequency of other less disruptive behaviors, such as getting in the refrigerator or emptying cupboards of their contents.

Time-out, or for that matter any other aversive procedure, should only be used as part of a program in which reinforcement procedures are also used.  Under those circumstances, the empirical evidence indicates that time-out is an effective technique in controlling behavior (Patterson, Ray, & Shaw, 1968; Zeilberger, Sampen, & Sloane, 1968; Hawkins, Peterson, Schweid, & Bijou, 1966).  On the other hand, the use of time-out under other circumstances may not be an advantageous one, as Kanfer and Phillips (1970) point out:

In fact, under conditions of low positive or high aversive reinforcement, the contingent time-out procedure for the disturbing response serves as a relief-stimulus, strengthening the noxious response according to the escape paradigm.  Thus, the reluctant child learns that destructive behavior in an unpleasant situation can lead to escape into time-out; the apparent ineffectiveness of this procedure is often due to its inept utilization (p. 361).

Other empirical research in the application of the time-out procedure as a behavior modification technique includes: stuttering (Haroldson, Martin, & Starr, 1968; Martin, Kuhl, & Haroldson, 1972; Adams & Popelka, 1971); establishing functional speech in echolalic children (Risley & Wolf, 1967); and deviant behavior in children (Wolf, Risley, & Mees, 1964; Williams, 1959; Wahler, Winkel, Peterson, & Morrison, 1965).  For example, in the Wahler et al. (1965) study, mothers were instructed in the use of time-out procedures in the deceleration of obstructiveness and tantrum behavior; in addition, cooperation on the part of the children was positively reinforced.  The findings reported by Wahler et al. (1965) indicate that few time-outs were necessary to eliminate the tantrums, and that the obstructiveness was eliminated rapidly.


© 1976 Angel Enrique Pacheco, Ph.D., C.Psych.  All Rights Reserved.



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