Variable Ratio Schedules: Examples and Benefits

In this article, we’ll explore what variable ratio schedules are, how they work, and some examples of how they can be used to achieve desired outcomes.

Ruben Kesherim
July 3, 2024

Variable Ratio Schedules: Examples and Benefits

Understanding Variable Ratio Reinforcement

Variable ratio reinforcement is a powerful concept in behavioral analysis that involves providing reinforcement after an unpredictable number of responses. This schedule of reinforcement is known for its effectiveness in promoting and maintaining behavior. In this section, we will provide an introduction to variable ratio reinforcement and explain how the variable ratio schedule works.

Introduction to Variable Ratio Reinforcement

Variable ratio reinforcement is a type of reinforcement schedule in which the reinforcement is delivered after an average number of responses, but with no specific pattern or set number of responses required.

This means that the individual engaging in the behavior does not know exactly how many responses are needed to receive reinforcement. Variable ratio reinforcement is often used in situations where the desired behavior needs to be strengthened and maintained over a longer period of time.

One of the key aspects of variable ratio reinforcement is the element of unpredictability. Since the reinforcement is provided after an average number of responses, but not after every response, individuals tend to engage in the behavior more consistently and persistently. This is because they never know when the next reinforcement will occur, creating a sense of anticipation and motivation to continue the behavior.

How Variable Ratio Schedule Works?

The variable ratio schedule works by reinforcing behavior after an average number of responses, which can vary from one instance to another. For example, if a variable ratio schedule has an average of 5, it means that reinforcement will be provided, on average, after every 5th response. However, the actual number of responses required before receiving reinforcement can be more or less than 5. This variability in the number of responses needed makes the behavior more resistant to extinction.

To illustrate how the variable ratio schedule works, consider the following example: a child is given a sticker as a reward for completing their homework. However, the sticker is given after an unpredictable number of completed assignments. The child might receive a sticker after completing 3 assignments, then after 7 assignments, and then after 4 assignments. The average number of assignments needed to receive a sticker is 5, but the actual number of assignments required can vary.

The variable ratio schedule is often used in various real-life scenarios to reinforce specific behaviors. Some examples include:

Examples of Variable Ratio Reinforcement

  • Gambling and Slot Machines
  • Online Shopping Rewards and Discounts
  • Social Media Likes and Notifications
  • Sales Commissions and Bonuses

By utilizing the variable ratio reinforcement schedule, these examples create a sense of anticipation and motivation, encouraging individuals to engage in the behavior consistently.

Understanding the concept of variable ratio reinforcement is essential for professionals in the field of behavioral analysis. This knowledge can be applied in various settings, such as collecting and analyzing ABC data, implementing behavior modification programs, and designing classroom rewards and incentives.

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Examples of Variable Ratio Reinforcement

Variable ratio reinforcement can be found in various aspects of our daily lives. This schedule of reinforcement is often associated with high levels of motivation and engagement due to its unpredictable nature. Here are some examples of where you can observe variable ratio reinforcement in action:

Gambling and Slot Machines

One classic example of variable ratio reinforcement is gambling, particularly when it comes to slot machines. Slot machines operate on a variable ratio schedule, where players must pull the lever or press a button to spin the reels.

The outcome of each spin is unpredictable, as the machine is programmed to deliver payouts based on a variable ratio. This variability in rewards keeps players engaged, as they never know when they may hit the jackpot. The anticipation of a potential win drives individuals to continue playing, even if they have experienced consecutive losses.

Online Shopping Rewards and Discounts

Many online retailers incorporate variable ratio reinforcement into their rewards and discounts programs. For example, loyalty programs that offer points or rewards for each purchase operate on a variable ratio schedule. Customers are enticed by the possibility of earning rewards, but the exact number of purchases required to unlock a reward is not explicitly disclosed.

This variability keeps customers engaged and motivated to make additional purchases, as they strive to reach the next reward level. Additionally, flash sales and time-limited discounts also utilize variable ratio reinforcement, as customers are uncertain when the next sale will occur. These tactics create a sense of urgency and encourage immediate purchasing decisions.

Social Media Likes and Notifications

Social media platforms employ variable ratio reinforcement to keep users engaged and active on their platforms. For instance, the number of likes, comments, and notifications received on posts operates on a variable ratio schedule.

Users are constantly seeking validation and recognition through these social interactions, and the unpredictable nature of when and how many likes or comments they receive keeps them coming back for more.

Additionally, the use of variable ratio reinforcement in the form of notifications creates an element of surprise, as users never know when they will receive a new message or update. This unpredictability encourages individuals to continuously check their social media accounts.

Sales Commissions and Bonuses

In the realm of sales and commission-based jobs, variable ratio reinforcement is commonly utilized to motivate employees. Salespeople often receive commissions or bonuses based on their performance, which is typically determined by the number of sales made.

The exact number of sales required to earn a commission or bonus may vary, and this variability serves as a powerful motivator. Salespeople are driven to work harder and close more deals, as they strive to reach the next level of compensation. By introducing uncertainty into the rewards system, the variable ratio schedule keeps salespeople engaged and determined to achieve their targets.

These examples demonstrate how variable ratio reinforcement can be observed in various contexts, from gambling and online shopping to social media and sales. By understanding the power of this reinforcement schedule, individuals can gain insights into their own behavior and the strategies employed by businesses to influence consumer behavior.

Benefits and Challenges of Variable Ratio Reinforcement

Variable ratio reinforcement can have both positive and negative effects on behavior. Understanding the benefits and challenges associated with this type of reinforcement is essential for effective implementation.

Increased Motivation and Engagement

One of the significant benefits of variable ratio reinforcement is its ability to increase motivation and engagement in individuals. Unlike continuous reinforcement, where a behavior is reinforced every time it occurs, variable ratio reinforcement introduces an element of unpredictability. This unpredictability creates excitement and anticipation, making individuals more motivated to engage in the desired behavior.

For example, in a sales commission structure, where salespeople receive bonuses based on their performance, a variable ratio reinforcement schedule can keep them engaged and motivated. They may not know exactly when they will receive a bonus, but they know that their efforts have the potential to be rewarded. This anticipation and uncertainty drive them to consistently work towards achieving their sales goals.

Potential for Addiction and Impulsiveness

While variable ratio reinforcement can be a powerful motivator, it also carries the risk of addiction and impulsiveness. The unpredictable nature of reinforcement can lead individuals to engage in a behavior excessively, hoping for a reward. This can be seen in activities such as gambling, where the variable ratio schedule used in slot machines can keep players hooked.

Slot machines provide a classic example of variable ratio reinforcement, with the potential for a win on each spin. The uncertainty of when the next win will occur keeps players coming back for more, often leading to addictive behaviors. It's important to recognize and address the potential for addiction when implementing variable ratio reinforcement strategies. Responsible use and monitoring are crucial to prevent negative consequences.

Ethical Considerations

Implementing variable ratio reinforcement strategies raises ethical considerations, particularly when it comes to influencing behavior in vulnerable populations. It's essential to ensure that the reinforcement is aligned with the individual's best interests and promotes positive outcomes.

For example, in educational settings, the use of variable ratio reinforcement for classroom rewards and incentives should be carefully considered. While it may increase student engagement and motivation, it is important to avoid creating a dependency on external rewards and to promote intrinsic motivation. The focus should be on fostering a love for learning and the development of lifelong skills rather than solely relying on external reinforcement.

By understanding the potential benefits and challenges of variable ratio reinforcement, behavior analysts and practitioners can make informed decisions when implementing these strategies. It is crucial to strike a balance between motivation and potential risks, ensuring that the reinforcement is used ethically and with the best interests of the individual or group in mind.

Applications in Behavioral Analysis

The concept of variable ratio reinforcement finds practical applications in various fields, including behavioral analysis. By understanding and utilizing variable ratio schedules, professionals can effectively shape behavior and promote positive outcomes. Here are some key applications of variable ratio reinforcement in behavioral analysis:

ABC Data Collection and Analysis

In behavioral analysis, the ABC data collection method is widely used to analyze the antecedents, behaviors, and consequences of specific actions or behaviors. By incorporating variable ratio reinforcement into the data collection process, analysts can gain insights into the frequency and patterns of behavior under different reinforcement schedules. This information helps in designing effective behavior modification programs.

Behavior Modification Programs

Variable ratio reinforcement is a valuable tool in behavior modification programs. By strategically implementing variable ratio schedules, practitioners can reinforce desired behaviors at unpredictable intervals.

This approach keeps individuals engaged and motivated to exhibit the desired behavior without becoming overly dependent on predictable rewards. Behavior modification programs that incorporate variable ratio reinforcement are particularly effective in shaping long-lasting behavioral changes.

Classroom Rewards and Incentives

Variable ratio reinforcement can be utilized in educational settings to encourage positive behavior and enhance student engagement. By implementing a variable ratio schedule for rewards and incentives, teachers can create an environment where students are motivated to actively participate and exhibit desired behaviors. For example, instead of providing rewards after a fixed number of correct answers, teachers can intermittently reward students to foster sustained engagement and effort.

When implementing variable ratio reinforcement in the classroom, it's important to strike a balance between reinforcing desired behaviors and avoiding student frustration. Teachers should monitor and adjust the reinforcement schedule as needed to achieve the desired outcomes.

By understanding and applying the principles of variable ratio reinforcement, professionals in the field of behavioral analysis can effectively shape behavior, promote engagement, and facilitate positive outcomes. Whether it's through the collection and analysis of ABC data, behavior modification programs, or classroom rewards and incentives, variable ratio reinforcement offers a powerful tool for promoting behavioral change.

Best Practices for Variable Ratio Reinforcement

Implementing variable ratio reinforcement effectively requires careful consideration and planning. To optimize the outcomes of this reinforcement schedule, it is important to follow best practices. This section explores three key best practices for variable ratio reinforcement: setting appropriate reinforcement ratios, combining variable ratio with other schedules, and monitoring and adjusting reinforcement strategies.

Setting Appropriate Reinforcement Ratios

Determining the appropriate reinforcement ratio is crucial for maintaining motivation and engagement. The reinforcement ratio refers to the number of responses required to receive reinforcement. It is important to strike a balance to ensure optimal performance and prevent under- or over-reinforcement.

When setting the reinforcement ratio, it is essential to consider the complexity and difficulty level of the task or behavior. Lower ratios, such as 1:1 or 1:2, may be suitable for simpler tasks that require immediate reinforcement. On the other hand, higher ratios, such as 1:5 or 1:10, can be used for more complex or challenging behaviors. The table below provides an example of different reinforcement ratios and their potential applications:

Reinforcement Ratio Application
1:1 Simple and immediate tasks
1:3 Moderately challenging tasks
1:5 Complex tasks or behaviors
1:10 Highly complex or difficult tasks

It is important to note that the reinforcement ratio may need to be adjusted based on individual preferences and needs. Regular monitoring and assessment of the behavior and the individual's response can help determine whether the reinforcement ratio is appropriate or requires modification.

Combining Variable Ratio with Other Schedules

Combining variable ratio reinforcement with other schedules can enhance the effectiveness of behavior modification programs. One common approach is to implement a combination of variable ratio and continuous reinforcement schedule. This involves reinforcing every instance of the desired behavior initially, followed by transitioning to a variable ratio schedule. This combination can help establish the behavior and maintain its frequency over time.

Another approach is to utilize a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement alongside other reinforcement schedules, such as fixed interval or fixed ratio schedules. This combination provides a varied and unpredictable reinforcement pattern, which can further enhance motivation and persistence.

The specific combination of schedules will depend on the behavior being targeted, the individual's preferences, and the desired outcome. A behavior analysis professional can provide guidance and expertise in selecting the most appropriate combination of schedules for a given situation.

Monitoring and Adjusting Reinforcement Strategies

Regular monitoring and evaluation of the reinforcement strategies are essential for maximizing the effectiveness of variable ratio reinforcement. It is important to assess the progress of the behavior and make adjustments as needed.

Monitoring can involve collecting ABC data (Antecedent - Behavior - Consequence) to identify patterns and trends associated with the behavior. This data can inform decision-making regarding the reinforcement schedule and ratios.

Adjustments to the reinforcement strategies may be necessary if the behavior is not progressing as desired or if there are signs of decreased motivation or engagement. This can involve modifying the reinforcement ratio, introducing or removing additional reinforcers, or even considering alternative reinforcement schedules.

Regular communication and collaboration with behavior analysts, therapists, or educators can provide valuable insights and guidance in monitoring and adjusting the reinforcement strategies effectively.

By following these best practices, individuals and professionals can optimize the use of variable ratio reinforcement and promote desired behaviors effectively and ethically. Remember that the success of variable ratio reinforcement relies on careful planning, ongoing assessment, and adapting strategies to meet individual needs and goals.


Variable ratio schedules are a powerful tool for shaping behavior in both humans and animals. By creating a sense of anticipation and excitement around the reward, they encourage persistence and can lead to better outcomes. Whether you’re trying to train a pet, motivate an employee, or encourage good behavior in a child, a variable ratio schedule can be a valuable tool to have in your toolkit.


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