Human instrumental performance in ratio and interval contingencies: A challenge for associative theory

Q J Exp Psychol (Hove). 2019 Feb;72(2):311-321. doi: 10.1080/17470218.2016.1265996. Epub 2018 Jan 1.


Associative learning theories regard the probability of reinforcement as the critical factor determining responding. However, the role of this factor in instrumental conditioning is not completely clear. In fact, free-operant experiments show that participants respond at a higher rate on variable ratio than on variable interval schedules even though the reinforcement probability is matched between the schedules. This difference has been attributed to the differential reinforcement of long inter-response times (IRTs) by interval schedules, which acts to slow responding. In the present study, we used a novel experimental design to investigate human responding under random ratio (RR) and regulated probability interval (RPI) schedules, a type of interval schedule that sets a reinforcement probability independently of the IRT duration. Participants responded on each type of schedule before a final choice test in which they distributed responding between two schedules similar to those experienced during training. Although response rates did not differ during training, the participants responded at a lower rate on the RPI schedule than on the matched RR schedule during the choice test. This preference cannot be attributed to a higher probability of reinforcement for long IRTs and questions the idea that similar associative processes underlie classical and instrumental conditioning.

Keywords: Associative theories; Causal learning; Goal-directed behaviour; Habits; Instrumental learning; Reinforcement schedules.

MeSH terms

  • Association Learning / physiology*
  • Conditioning, Operant / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Probability
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Reinforcement, Psychology
  • Students
  • Universities