4. Conditions for the Application of Reinforcement Procedures

The vast majority of behavior therapy interventions involve the application of reinforcement principles (Kanfer & Phillips, 1970).  The focus of this section are the essential conditions under which reinforcement procedures are applied.  To this effect, Bandura (1969) succinctly states that:

First, one must select reinforcers that are sufficiently powerful and durable to maintain responsiveness over long periods while complex patterns of behavior are being established and strengthened.  Second, the reinforcing events must be made contingent upon the desired behavior if they are to be optimally effective.  And third, a reliable procedure for eliciting or inducing the desired response patterns is essential; otherwise, if they rarely or never occur there will be few opportunities to influence them through contingent reinforcement (p. 225).

Premack (1965) has indicated that almost any activity can function as an effective reinforcer under appropriate conditions.  In addition, Bandura (1969) stated that the potential capability of an activity or object as a reinforcer is a relational rather than an absolute property.  Thus, “a particular response event will have no potency in relation to a more highly preferred activity, but it will function as an effective positive reinforcer when paired with responses of lesser value” (Bandura, 1969, p. 222).

Once the therapist has identified effective reinforcers, they must be provided on a contingent basis in order to effect the modification of behaviors.  The contingency management of a reinforcer is defined as the dispensation of a reinforcer following the target behavior, but only following the occurrence of that behavior (Rimm & Masters, 1974).  A number of experiments have been performed to demonstrate that the contingent reinforcement of behaviors is an effective procedure in controlling behavior, and that, conversely, the noncontingent reinforcement of behavior fails to control it (Bandura & Perloff, 1967; Redd, 1969; Hart, Reynolds, Baer, Brawley, & Harris, 1968).  In addition, the most effective way of modifying behaviors is by applying the reinforcer immediately contingent on the target behavior (Renner, 1964).  However, this temporal contiguity may be obviated by explaining to the person whose behavior is to be modified (through verbal mediation) the contingencies imposed (Bandura, 1969).

The application of reinforcers by the therapist in a contingency management program obviously depends upon the person producing the target response.  A technique that has been used successfully to elicit such responses is shaping, which involves the reinforcement of successive approximations of the desired target response by the individual.  Examples of the application of this technique are the studies by King, Armitage, and Tilton (1960), and by Isaacs, Thomas, and Goldiamond (1960), both reported below.  Other procedures involve the use of verbal prompts instructing the individual on how and when to produce the behavior to be reinforced (Baer & Wolf, Note 3), as well as the use of physical response guidance procedures, in which the individual is physically assisted to produce the reinforceable response (Lovaas, 1966).


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



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