What is Meant by Differential Reinforcement in the Context of Applied Behavior Analysis?

Differential reinforcement is a strategy used in applied behavior analysis (ABA) to address challenging or undesirable behavior, usually in children. While there are a number of techniques used in differential reinforcement, the goal is always the same: to encourage appropriate behavior by giving or withholding reinforcement.

The theory behind differential reinforcement is that people tend to repeat behaviors that are reinforced or rewarded and are less likely to continue behaviors that aren’t reinforced.

Differential reinforcement consists of two components:

  • Reinforcing the appropriate behavior
  • Withholding reinforcement of the inappropriate behavior

‘Appropriate’ behavior in differential reinforcement may be recognized as: (1) not behaving inappropriately; or (2) choosing a positive response over a negative one.

Think of differential reinforcement as the opposite of traditional discipline, which would be: Child displays a negative behavior and adult implements a punishment to discourage the behavior. Using differential reinforcement, the adult would not discourage the child’s negative behavior, only encourage the child’s positive behavior. By withholding reinforcement of the child’s negative behavior, the negative behavior fades away.

What Does Withholding Reinforcement Mean?

Withholding reinforcement when using differential reinforcement essentially means ignoring inappropriate behavior. In most cases, this means not making eye contact, remaining silent, and moving away. Withholding reinforcement often causes the behavior to escalate before it begins to improve, so implementing it requires consistency and patience.

To achieve the most success, the adult must also immediately implement positive reinforcement when the child performed the desired behavior.

How is Differential Reinforcement Used?

There are small nuances in the way differential reinforcement can be implemented:

Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior (DRI)

DRI involves reinforcing behavior that can’t occur at the same time as the inappropriate behavior. For example, a teacher wants the child to remain in his seat. Each time the student leaves his seat, the behavior is ignored. However, when the child remains seated, the teacher rewards him with a sticker.

Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior (DRA)

DRA involves reinforcing a behavior that serves as an alternative to the inappropriate behavior. A good example of this would be a child who demands food from his parents. Each time the child makes a demand, his parents would ignore him. Only when the child asks politely do the parents turn, acknowledge him, and satisfy his request.

Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior (DRO)

DRO involves rewarding the child when the inappropriate behavior does not occur during a specific amount of time. An example of this type of differential reinforcement would be a child who repeatedly leaves his seat during dinnertime. The parent would set a timer for ten minutes. If the child does not leave his seat during this time, he is rewarded with television time following dinner.

Differential Reinforcement of Low Rates (DRL)

DRL involves encouraging the child to reduce the frequency of a behavior. The behavior itself is not inappropriate, but the frequency in which the child engages in it is inappropriate. A good example of this type of differential reinforcement is a child who repeatedly washes his hands before lunch. In this case, the teacher wants the child to wash his hands, but not more than once before lunch. Using DRL, the teacher would reward the child by allowing him to be first in line to lunch if he avoids washing his hands more than once.

When is Differential Reinforcement Used?

Differential reinforcement is most often used with children, although it can also be used successfully with other populations and in many other settings.

For example, consider a human resources manager who implements specific rules regarding interoffice communication. Namely, that all employees must use email when they have questions. If an employee chooses not to follow this rule and instead leaves a voicemail with a question regarding his pay, the human resources manager would ignore his request until the employee sends the request in an email.