PORTL research: The power of one reinforcer

At several conferences around 2010, I heard animal trainer Bob Bailey warn about what he calls “desperation-driven clicks.”

When training an animal, things don’t always work out the way the trainer planned. What can sometimes happen when things don’t go as planned is that the trainer, out of desperation or frustration, goes ahead and reinforces a behavior that is not quite what she wants.

Bob Bailey has been training animals since the 1960s. So, he’s observed tens of thousands of interactions between trainers and their animals. What Bob reports is that sometimes after a desperation-driven click, the animal gets stuck for awhile on this new behavior, even if the new behavior is only reinforced once. If this happens, it can make it harder for the trainer to shape the goal behavior.

I became very curious about this idea of desperation-driven clicks. I wanted to know more about how a desperation-driven click worked and what effect it could have on learning. Although Bob Bailey and others reported observing this phenomenon in practice, there did not seem to be any research about it.

So, I decided to see if I could model a desperation-driven click in PORTL. PORTL is a powerful tool for conducting inquiry and research projects. (You can read more here about using PORTL for research.)

It took some experimenting and tinkering to figure out how to do this. But, it was fascinating to watch the procedure evolve. Eventually, I arrived at a procedure that could be used to reproduce a desperation-driven click. This investigation into desperation-driven clicks evolved into my master’s thesis project.

The power of one reinforcer

Earlier this year, the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior published the research article that Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz and I wrote about desperation-driven clicks. In the article, we discuss how we modeled desperation-driven clicks using PORTL and how this provides more information about the effects of single reinforcers during teaching.

Here is a PDF of the article. We encourage you to check out the article to learn more about the effects of single reinforcers and to see how PORTL can be used as a research tool.

Here is the abstract for the article:

During shaping, if the organism is engaged in behaviors other than the current approximation, the amount of time between reinforcers increases. In these situations, the shaper may resort to what is referred to as a “desperation‐driven click.” That is, after a period of no reinforcement, the shaper delivers one reinforcer for a nontarget approximation. Reports from professional animal trainers suggest that the animal may continue performing this new behavior, even if it is reinforced only once. This study attempted to model this phenomenon with college students. Results from the study demonstrated that a desperation‐driven click situation can be reliably produced in a controlled setting. When participants received one reinforcer for interacting with a new object following a period of no reinforcement, they interacted with the new object for a longer or equal amount of time as compared to an object that had a longer history of reinforcement. The results of this study have implications for the understanding of how reinforcement controls behavior.

Reference: Hunter, M. & Rosales‐Ruiz, J. (2019). The power of one reinforcer: The effect of a single reinforcer in the context of shaping. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 111(3), 449-464.

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