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Generalized Reinforcement - The Environmental Control

Human Behavior

Reinforcers such as attention, approval, and money share a property not present in other more simple conditioned reinforcements, such as the taxi for the individual on the way to the restaurant, the light and sound for the pigeon, or the pencil sharpener for the individual who is disposed to write but whose pencil is broken. In these latter examples, the reinforcing effect of the conditioned reinforcement depends on a specific area of deprivation, as well as a relevant primary reinforcement. The likelihood of asking for the taxi will vary with the level of deprivation with respect to food in the restaurant. Similarly, if writing does not bring about a reinforcing state of affairs, the individual with a broken pencil will not necessarily show a high disposition to sharpen a pencil. In the case of money, attention, and approval, however, it is extremely likely that at least one or more areas of deprivation or reinforcement will be controlling the behavior at any time, because the generalized reinforcement has been an occasion on which there occurred a wide range of behaviors under the control of a wide range of reinforcers. Approval and money are occasions on which a tremendous range of behaviors affected by a wide variety of deprivations can be reinforced. The result is a powerful and stable reinforcer that is not so subject to fluctuations because of local changes in level of deprivation.

THE EFFECT OF DEPRIVATION The fact that the effective reinforcers in human and animal behavior are conditioned stimuli which derive their main effects because of later consequences of the chain of responses in which they function has special relevance to the problem of the effects of deprivation and satiation. In most of the animal behavioral demonstrations described so far, a hungry bird has been reinforced by food. Depriving the animal of food increases the frequency of all those chains of behaviors which have led ultimately to food. The disposition to perform changes continuously, with an animal's body weight, from near zero, when the bird is at free-feeding body weight just after eating, to maximum levels at extremes of deprivation, such as 65 per cent of normal body weight for the pigeon.

The deprivation operation in human behavior does not at first appear to be so clear-cut as in the animal experiments. The discrepancy occurs because the chains of responses in most human behavior contain more responses, involve more varying topographies of response, and take longer periods of time than a simple animal chain. The individual hailing a taxi to go to a restaurant is controlled by his level of deprivation with respect to food or other consequences occurring in the restaurant rather than by taxi deprivation. The disposition to hail a taxi would then be a function of the level of deprivation associated with the restaurant rather than the level of deprivation in respect to taxis. The taxi is one element in a chain of performances leading ultimately to the eating at the restaurant. While the absence of a taxi will strengthen a lot of behavior reinforced by its appearance, the more important deprivational condition is the one which will strengthen all of the behaviors in the chain of responses. The same argument holds for reinforcers such as attention and affection. These are conditioned reinforcers which maintain behavior because they are discriminative stimuli for further behavior in other chains of responses leading ultimately to other reinforcers. The approval of one's friends, for example, makes possible their acceptance of invitations for social interaction, the probability of continued association which in turn makes possible cooperative behaviors, the possibility of borrowing money, and so forth.

Clinicians frequently report individuals who have an exaggerated need for attention, but this does not necessarily imply that one may be deprived of attention and affection in the sense of food deprivation. What we actually observe in these cases is a high frequency of behaviors that have their effect on the environment in the attention of other persons. For example, there is the individual whose manner of dress is unusual enough so that most people will comment, even though adversely, or one who will aggressively monopolize the social interchange in a social group, or the student who repeatedly asks questions in class, the answer to which he already knows. Attention and affection are normal reinforcers which will maintain behavior in almost any individual. In many cases of behavioral pathology, however, the behavior of the patient consists of demands for attention and approval which are either ineffective or aversive to the listener or inadequate, so that the behavior occurs under many conditions where it cannot be reinforced. In the normal chain of responses involving attention and approval, the relevant deprivation operation is not in respect to the attention or approval of the audience; rather, it is the long-term consequences involved in the later behaviors in the chain for which attention and approval are discriminative stimuli. Cases of a pathologic need for attention may often illustrate the necessity of a functional analysis of behavior, rather than a formal or topographic analysis. Responses apparently maintained by producing attention may, in fact, resemble normal cases involving attention only in superficial form. In some pathologic cases, attention and approval may reinforce because they are avoidance responses and not because they lead to further behaviors which may be reinforced by the listener. Behaviors which produce the attention of the listener or demand his approval can serve as avoidance responses if they pre-empt behaviors with which the individual estimates himself as incapable or inadequate. In other cases, the attention and approval, while being positively reinforcing, may have secondary effects which are aversive to the listener. The student who asks repeated questions, the answers to which he already knows, is creating a state of affairs which qualifies him as a successful person in the community. The difficulty stems from the fact that the student will be criticised for monopolizing the class period, being immodest, or misleading the audience. Despite the aversive effects on the listener of excessive demands for attention, much of the behavior is undoubtedly reinforced by many audiences or else it would be weaker than it often appears to be. Specifications of the exact reinforcer would of course depend on an analysis of particular audiences and the specific consequences they apply.

Chaining And The Rapid Development Of New Behavior In The Second And Third Year

New chains of behavior are being formed most rapidly during the second and third years of development. Prior to the second year, the immobility of the child limits its new behaviors to those which can affect a parent or occur in a crib or playpen. As the child's mobility increases when it crawls and walks, the range of reinforcers potentially accessible increases. The increased number of potential reinforcers are accompanied by new behavioral repertoires which come into being through successive approximation by these reinforcers. At first, the chains consist of responses which change the nonsocial world. Crawling and walking are the constituent elements of some of the earliest chains because changing its location enables the child to engage in other behavior which has more important consequences. For example, the child crawls toward an adult or toys which, in turn, makes it possible to play with the toy or produce behavior in the adult more effectively. Each new performance which emerges in the child's behavioral development makes possible the reinforcement of new behavior by means of the construction of a chain leading to the reinforced response. As soon as a child learns to climb on a chair to reach the cookie jar, a reinforcer is present for reinforcement of a wide range of performances involving handling chairs. The behavior of pushing a chair across the floor to the required place may be developed by successive approximation. The repertoire of handling a large bulky object is successively approximated or shaped by the effect of the behavior in moving the heavy object to the location where climbing on it will produce the desired effect. The optimal conditions for producing such a repertoire would be those where initially the furniture was light and easily managed and not too far from the required place. The ability to move heavier furniture over longer distances would develop slowly after the child developed performances effective in moving lighter and smaller objects.

The parent serves as an important link in many of the child's response chains, because he mediates a variety of the environmental changes which are potential reinforcers for the child. The very young child is by and large incapable of dealing effectively with most features of its physical environment. Instead of acting directly on the physical environment, the child emits behavior in respect to the parent who in turn acts on the physical environment providing the relevant consequences maintaining the child's behavior. Since the parent becomes an occasion on which a wide variety of important consequences for the child under the control of a wide number of deprivations can occur, the parent comes to function as: (1) a discriminative stimulus: an event correlated with the reinforcement of the relevant responses and, hence, potentially controlling the frequency or likelihood of its occurrence; and (2) a generalized reinforcer: a reinforcer deriving its effect because it is in turn the occasion on which a large number of performances may produce a variety of reinforcers relevant to various areas of deprivation. For the young child, up to the age of two or three years, the parent, particularly the mother, mediates nearly every important environmental consequence maintaining the child's performance. This occurs largely as a result of the general immaturity of the human infant in comparison with other species. For the first nine to 15 months of life, the parent is the sole agency on which the events responsible for the very maintenance of the child's life depends. Even after the child acquires more and more direct control over his environment, very substantial portions of its repertoire still continue to be maintained by parental reinforcement. Only in the presence of the parent is the response, "May I have a cookie?" reinforced by the parent saying, "Yes," which in turn is reinforcing because this is the occasion on which the parent hands the child the cookie or permits him to open the cookie jar. The situation is similar in the area of play and games.

Control Over The Environment As A Generalized Reinforcer

As a child acquires more and more performances reinforced by an increasing number of direct effects on both social and nonsocial environments, conditions emerge whereby simply "changing the environment" becomes established as a generalized reinforcer. This occurs because almost all of the reinforcements supporting the child's behavior include direct effects on the social or nonsocial environment. Merely affecting the environment, then, is correlated with many different reinforcers under the control of many different kinds of deprivation. It may be possible that many of the effective reinforcers in "playing" are related to changes in the environment serving as generalized reinforcers.


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