In operant conditioning, continuous reinforcement is reinforcement which occurs every time the desired behavior occurs. This is in contrast with a partial reinforcement schedule, in which reinforcement is provided sometimes, but not always, on a schedule which can vary in irregularity. Typically, continuous reinforcement is used at an early stage of operant conditioning, when the goal is to familiarize the organism being conditioned with the basic ground rules of the situation. Continuous reinforcement must be provided promptly and consistently in order to work.
Reinforcement is a technique which is designed to increase the probability of repeat behavior, in contrast with punishment, in which the goal is to decrease the probability of repeat behavior. In positive reinforcement, a pleasant stimulus is introduced to the situation as a reward, while in negative reinforcement, a negative stimulus is taken away as a reward. While negative reinforcement might sound strangely like punishment, it is important to note that rather than punishing behavior by introducing a negative stimulus, it is rewarding behavior by taking the unpleasant stimulus away.
A classic example of positive reinforcement is food. Organisms from rats to dolphins enjoy eating special treats, and will quickly learn to associate a desired behavior with a snack. The drawback to using food for positive reinforcement is that an organism may grow full before a session is over. For this reason, people sometimes prefer to use what is known as a secondary or conditioned reinforcer, something which an organism has been conditioned to view as positive. For example, the phrase “good dog” on its own is not a reinforcer, but it becomes one when a dog is conditioned to associate the phrase with food or physical attention. When an organism is on a continuous reinforcement schedule, it receives a reward in the form of a primary or secondary reinforcer every time it exhibits a desired behavior.
One of the most commonly used examples of negative reinforcement comes from laboratory experiments in which animals are shocked until they exhibit a desired behavior, such as pushing a button. In a conditioned form of negative reinforcement, a tone sounds before the shock occurs, with the animal learning to associate the tone with the shock. The animal has the choice of hitting the button before the shock happens, learning to avoid the shock by hitting the button first. Negative reinforcement is used in escape and avoidance conditioning, and occasionally by frustrated parents, as in “clean your room and I'll stop nagging.”
The continuous reinforcement schedule is used to establish basic ground rules so that the organism being conditioned understands what is happening and why. While animals have been used as examples in this article, operant conditioning can also be used on people. For example, many parents use this method to teach their children positive behaviors, switching to a partial reinforcement schedule later so that children do not learn to expect praise with every positive behavior. As in the nagging example, parents can also use a conditioned negative reinforcement, with children learning to do something after being asked once to avoid being subjected to constant reminders.