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Human self-control and the density of reinforcement

By Stephen R. Flora and William B. Pavlik


Choice responding in adult humans on a discrete-trial button-pressing task was examined as a function of amount, delay, and overall density (points per unit time) of reinforcement. Reinforcement consisted of points that were exchangeable for money. In T 0 conditions, an impulsive response produced 4 points immediately and a self-control response produced 10 points after a delay of 15 s. In T 15 conditions, a constant delay of 15 s was added to both prereinforcer delays. Postreinforcer delays, which consisted of 15 s added to the end of each impulsive trial, equated trial durations regardless of choice, and was manipulated in both T 0 and T 15 conditions. In all conditions, choice was predicted directly from the relative reinforcement densities of the alternatives. Self-control was observed in all conditions except T 0 without postreinforcer delays, where the impulsive choices produced the higher reinforcement density. These results support previous studies showing that choice is a direct function of the relative reinforcement densities when conditioned (point) reinforcers are used. In contrast, where responding produces intrinsic (immediately consumable) reinforcers, immediacy of reinforcement appears to account for preference when density does not

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