The Awesome Power of Intermittent Reinforcement

Many years ago, when cell phones with video-recording capability were a recent invention, the mother of an 11-year-old client of mine showed up in my office in a tizzy. She wanted to show me what had happened on the way to the appointment when she and her son, Will, had stopped at a video game store to buy a gift for a birthday party Will was attending later in the evening. While at the store, Will had seen a game he wanted to purchase for himself, but he did not have any money. He asked Mom to lend him the money and promised to pay her back after his upcoming birthday when he would receive money from his grandparents. As part of a broader plan to help Will manage money more carefully (and frankly, to be less of a spoiled brat), Mom and Dad had decided weeks earlier to stop fronting Will money. Even though Will had been part of the family therapy session in which this decision was made, he was angry. His mother, who had a new-found commitment to setting consistent limits, did not initially yield to his anger. When she repeatedly told him no, his behavior escalated. First, he raised his voice, then he made provocative statements such as “I hate my life” and “I’d rather be dead,” and finally (I kid you not), he sat down on the floor of the game store, pounded his hands and feet, and cried. This is what Mom wanted to show me on video: her 11-year-old 6th grade son having a temper tantrum in public. After Mom left my office, I expressed my surprise about his behavior to Will. I said something like, “Wow, that’s quite a reaction to not getting your way.” To which, Will replied 

It works about one out of fourteen times. Will, age 11

He went on to explain that yes, he knows he is too old to behave that way; and yes, it is kind of embarrassing to act that way in public; but, heck, there is a non-zero chance that he will get what he wants in the end. And, in fact, today had been one of those times. With a flourish and a grin, he reached into his backpack and pulled out a brand new video game, still in shrink-wrap.

That, my fellow parents, is the awesome power of intermittent reinforcement. Let’s be perfectly clear about what this term means. Intermittent reinforcement (IR) occurs when a behavior (such as a temper tantrum) is rewarded (with, say, a video game) on an unpredictable schedule. IR works like nothing else to increase the frequency of a behavior. IR is a powerful tool for parents and can be used to strengthen desirable behaviors like saying please and tidying bedrooms. Or, in the example of Will and the video game, it can inadvertently strengthen undesirable behaviors such as temper tantrums or refusal to sleep in one’s own bed (more on this topic in a subsequent post).

I don’t usually talk about animal behavior in therapy or in this blog, but this example made such an impression on me in graduate school that, unlike many of my classmates, I never had trouble understanding reinforcement schedules, so please bear with me. If I want to teach a pigeon to peck a lever in order to receive a food pellet, I will start out by giving him a food pellet every time he randomly pecks the lever. The pigeon will figure out very quickly that if he wants a pellet, he should peck the lever. Once the association between pecking the lever and receiving the food pellet is established, I can increase the frequency of the pecking behavior by reducing the frequency of the pellet reward. If I give the pigeon a pellet for every 10 pecks, he will peck more because he wants the pellets. Guess what happens if I dispense the pellets randomly. The pigeon will peck like crazy. It’s as if the bird is thinking, “I don’t know how many times I have to peck this lever, but eventually I will get a pellet so I am just going to peck away until I get a pellet, and then I will peck some more!” Does that remind you at all of Will’s statement?

There’s one more thing you need to know. If I decide I want the pigeon to do something else for food instead of pecking the lever, say chirp, it will take a very, very long time to break him of the pecking behavior if I have been using an IR schedule. This is called resistance to extinction. If I stop dispensing the pellets when the pigeon pecks cold turkey, the pigeon will peck fast for a long time. This is called an extinction burst. Eventually, the bird will start to peck less and less, but he will continue to peck at the lever occasionally for a very long time, even if I have already started to give him a pellet every time he chirps.

Here’s a human example. A common child behavior that is often reinforced by parents on an intermittent schedule is coming into Mom and Dad’s bed in the middle of the night. When parents who have allowed this behavior on occasion finally decide to break the habit altogether, the first several nights can be hell. The child may come into the parents’ room 10, 15, even 20 times in one night! That’s the extinction burst. Even if the parents are 100% committed, it can take many nights to undo the effects of a previous IR schedule. That’s the resistance to extinction. But, let’s say Mom and Dad have successfully broken the habit, and their child has not climbed into their bed in the middle of the night for six full months. Then, the child gets sick and they decide to let her sleep with them “just one night.” That one night often puts them back to square one. That’s the awesome power of intermittent reinforcement.

Most parents understand the importance of not giving in to tantrums or other undesirable behaviors. In fact, I believe that most parents don’t give in most of the time. They only give in when they are tired or in a hurry or distracted. In other words, they give in on an intermittent reinforcement schedule. That’s how one ends up with an 11-year-old who throws an all-out tantrum in the middle of the Electronics Boutique. And believe me, kids sense these moments of weakness. They can tell when Mom or Dad is vulnerable. I suspect Will was aware of the time constraints at play when he sat down and starting kicking, pounding, and crying.

Here are three simple suggestions that may help you avoid this common parenting trap:

  1. Remember the pigeon. If you really, really understand the fundamental principles of reinforcement and extinction, then your child’s behavior becomes pretty predictable and effective responses on your part should be pretty clear as well.
  2. Set limits mindfully. Be aware of your own state of mind. Ask yourself if saying no is important enough to risk a battle, a tantrum, a meltdown, etc. It is much better, from a behavior management standpoint, to say yes from the get-go than to say no at first and eventually yield to the child’s negative behavior.
  3. Ignore negative behavior intended to punish you for setting a limit. Breathe deeply, walk away, count backwards from a million if you have to, but do not react. Once you have said no a couple of times, you need do nothing more.

Children are not pigeons, and parents are not white-coated scientists with an objective interest in behavioral principles. As a parent, this behavior management stuff is hard and it can be exhausting. Sometimes we are weary and sometimes we are busy. We don’t like to see our children disappointed. We feel judged when they misbehave in public. Some children are just really tough to parent. All of these factors, and many more, affect our effectiveness as parents. But don’t despair; true understanding and consistent application of these principles will make a huge difference in your effectiveness and in your child’s behavior.

[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]

About Dr. Sayers

I am a child psychologist and mother of two. This blog is about the lessons we, as parents, can learn about parenting from the things that child clients have told me over my 20 years in private practice. I continue to work with children and families at Southampton Psychiatric Associates ( which serves Bucks, eastern Montgomery, and northeast Philadelphia counties in Pennsylvania. In addition, I train psychology graduate students and psychiatry residents at Temple University.
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5 Responses to The Awesome Power of Intermittent Reinforcement

  1. Pingback: Top 9 Reasons Why Kids Misbehave | What Kids Want Us to Know

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  4. Elana Torres says:

    The inconsistent parent is me to a t. Mu husband wantd to be hard and judgemental, I rush to soften it. Now we have a twelve soon to be thirteen year old girl who has had sex, does pot. Het dad was put in jail for spanking with a belt. She is the Love of my life but I am the worst mom ever because she won’t listen.

    • Dr. Sayers says:

      It won’t be easy now that your daughter is approaching the teen years, but it is never too late to try and change things. You “have” your daughter for 5+ more years. If you haven’t already, find a good family therapist (if money is an issue and you live near a university, there may be a training clinic that offers low-cost services). You’ve already named 3 fixable problems: that you and your husband are not on the same page, that you tend to be inconsistent, and that your husband uses (used?) corporal punishment. The “worst mom ever” would be blaming her daughter, not taking any responsibility. There is still hope for your family! Things can get better – not perfect – but much, much better.

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