The Pitfalls of Intermittent Reinforcement

Beverley Penny, Owner DebRan Bird Toys
Originally published in Good Bird Magazine
Volume 4-1, Spring 2008, Page 29

Applied Behavior Analysis defines intermittent reinforcement as a schedule where not every instance of a behaviour is reinforced. The result of intermittent reinforcement is more persistent behavior when reinforcement is infrequent or nonexistent. Intermittent reinforcement results in gamblerís behavior, where people keeping pulling the arm of the slot machine persistently, even though most of the pulls get them nothing.

When reinforcement is permanently withheld following a behavior, the behavior decreases. This is called extinction. Behaviors extinguish slower when they have been maintained on an intermittent schedule of reinforcement. This is called the Partial Reinforcement Effect and this is the puppy or should I say parrot that causes most of our headaches when it comes to problem behaviours in our birds. Bev Penny defines intermittent reinforcement as the cause of the minor behavioural problems she has with her birds. And who is the culprit who does all of this intermittent reinforcing Ė why that would be Bev Penny.

When I try to put a problem behaviour on extinction to decrease it, and then occasionally reinforce the behaviour, there you have it, intermittent reinforcement. Many people are told to ignore the screaming and ignore the biting.Ē Unfortunately, it is not good advice for most of us. The average parrot caregiver simply does not have the skills necessary to put a behaviour on extinction even though it can be done using Applied Behaviour Analysis. If the consequence of the behaviour is reinforcing enough to your bird, you donít have to reinforce it very often (sometimes only one time) for the behaviour to be maintained or even to increase for that matter. A prime example of intermittent reinforcement is gambling or buying lottery tickets. We keep buying them even though our chances are slim to none of ever winning the big jackpot. Occasionally, we win a couple bucks and bingo, we keep buying lottery tickets hoping that the next ticket will yield the millions. That is intermittent reinforcement and it builds persistent misbehaviour.

One example of intermittent reinforcement (unfortunately I have many examples) is Zazu, my 13 year old goffin who has developed this annoying habit of flying to my shoulder, pooping and flying off. In other words, I seem to be a walking toilet or Port-O-Bev as it were. Now one could conjure up all kinds of reasons why she does this (she is mad at me, jealous of the other birds, does not like me, etc.) but in fact, the reason she does it is very simple, I have intermittently reinforced her for doing it. Silly of me, donít you think? Actually, it happens all the time. I hear parrot people saying ďso and so is doing this and I donít know why. Well, the why is actually very simple, your bird is doing it because somewhere along the line, you or someone/something else has reinforced (getting something your bird values) him/her for doing it because otherwise your bird wouldnít do it. Behaviour has function. It does not happen in a vacuum.

Where there is behaviour, there is consequence. Now back to being a walking toilet. Zazu did not always do this and how it came to be is fascinating albeit annoying and letís not even talk about how much itís costing me to do laundry these days. I will give you a Functional Analysis of how this behaviour came to be. We always fill in the behaviour first. In this case, that would be Zazu poops down Bevís back. See Figure 1. Just kidding!!!!

Background: Bev is busy doing housework and hasnít spent any time with Zazu.

Antecedent: Bev is ignoring Zazu

Behaviour: Zazu flies to Bevís shoulder and poops on Bev

Consequence: Bev chases Zazu all over the apartment and yells at her for pooping on her.

Possible Future Behaviour: Zazu will fly to Bevís shoulder more often and poop because Bev yells at her (attention)

I can assure you that there is some serious high drama going on for a few minutes after she does this. It is obvious to me that I have intermittently reinforced this behaviour because (1) she didnít always do this and (2) the behaviour has increased which suggests my yelling is reinforcing to her. What is also very interesting about this is that for a few days after each pooping episode, I will not let her on my shoulder. She keeps trying and eventually, humans being what they are, I allow her to stay and of course, you know what happens next, bingo, I have intermittently reinforced this unwanted behaviour. Okay, here it is. What is so amazing is that there was a time before LLP (Susan Friedmanís course, ďLiving and Learning with ParrotsĒ, see when I would have believed Zazu was out to get me. Now I can look at it and see how it evolved into the problem behaviour it is today and that I am totally to blame for intermittently reinforcing the behaviour to begin with. Intermittent reinforcement is the one we can blame for screaming and biting but you know what has been done can be undone if you approach it in a systematic manner using the techniques of Applied Behaviour Analysis.

Extinction is when the reinforcer that maintains the behaviour is withdrawn. As you can imagine, I want to reduce the behavior and considered using extinction but is that a good solution? Not for me it isnít because I am not consistent enough right now (I am a work in progress). Extinguishing a problem behaviour might be a good solution for Susan, Lee or Barb who have way more experience with Applied Behaviour Analysis than I do, so the key is figuring out what will work best for me because I donít mind Zazu being on my shoulder but I do not want her pooping on me. There are a couple of things I could do. The first thing I could so is train Zazu to go potty (antecedent change) before she is given access to my shoulder and the second thing would be to fill up Zazuís attention

tank, which is the time that I spend with her one-on-one. If the reinforcing factor for Zazu is the attention she gets from me, then filling her attention tank by spending time with her, will decrease the value of the attention she gets from me by pooping on me Ė this strategy is called an establishing operation (or motivation operation). Kind of like offering a chocolate lover some chocolate after theyíve just eaten a pound of the stuff. but thatís for another time. Because Applied Behaviour Analysis is all about setting your bird up to succeed, I think the best solution is to have Zazu poop before she is given access to my shoulder and as many of you know that is more about timing than training.

Another example of intermittent reinforcement is Gypsyís chirp. Remember I told you how she would chirp when I was eating because I had reinforced the chirp by getting up and giving her some of my food. Well, guess what, she doesnít chirp when I am eating anymore but she chirps ( I must have reinforced this too)when I am giving one of my other birdís some food and now Sally has started to chirp so I am surrounded by a bunch of crickets. Very loud crickets, I might add.

I donít know about you but I am on automatic when I get home from work. I have a routine for cleaning which takes very little brain power and thatís a good thing because I have very little at the end of the day anyway. Actually, my boss doesnít think I have any at the beginning of the day either but thatís a whole other story. Unfortunately, this spills over into the time I spend with my birds. Somewhere, I have inadvertently (this happens a lot Iíve noticed) reinforced Sallyís chirping when she wants something. Sally starts out with a very whiny please and if that doesnít work, she moves to the chirp and I swear it must have been so subtle that I caught myself thinking ďwhen did that happenĒ. The only person I can blame is me because I live by myself. I canít blame the birds; they are just doing what works for them. Think about it, if I came to your house and you started to whine and I gave you money (which was something you wanted), how long do you think it would take you before you were whining 24 hours a day? Itís no different for your birds except their reinforcers are different. If your bird is exhibiting a behaviour that you consider a problem, it is 100% positive that the behaviour has been reinforced and you really have to be careful about the intermittent reinforcement because I just realized I have become an expert at it. The good news is I can change the behaviours I donít want, accept the behaviours I do want and with Applied Behaviour Analysis, sometimes I have the wisdom to know the difference. Notice I said some times, I am, after all, only human!!

Differential reinforcement is defined as the combination of positive reinforcement and extinction. Extinguishing an unwanted behaviour is difficult but not impossible when paired with reinforcement for the right behaviour. I believe this is best left to the professionals. Even they prefer other methods such as DRI (differential reinforcement of incompatible behaviour or DRA (differential reinforcement of an alternate behaviour). These systematic programs will be much more effective than trying to extinguish a problem behaviour unless you have the skills to do so. For example, I could teach Zazu to fly to my shoulder on command, after she has pooped. This would be DRA and it would set Zazu up to succeed and greatly reduce my laundry bill. So everyone wins and that, my friends, is what Applied Behaviour Analysis is all about!!!!

Bev Penny
Owner: DebRan Bird Toys

Owner: DebRan Bird Toys