Hello! It's been less than a week since I graduated from high school (something for which I worked long and hard) and I've been feeling pretty down for these past few days (sad/directionless/empty). My boyfriend suggested that I might be experiencing a post-reinforcement pause. Could that be what this is?
First off, I’m sorry to hear you have felt directionless in light of school ending. I want to just quick point out that I cannot give any sort of input on diagnosis or treatment outside of speaking with a professional should you be concerned, and perhaps it could be a good option for you in trying to find some direction again!
However, considering you are talking about schedules of reinforcement, which is not a diagnosis or inherently indicative of pathology, I will address that topic in a more broad sense. I’m going to tag behaviouristatplay in the event that I miss something or am mistaken on this, too!
For people who are not aware, postreinforcement pause refers to an effect associated with a fixed ratio schedule of reinforcement. This refers to a schedule of reinforcement where an individual, or participant/subject, receives some form of reward (e.g., giving a rat food) after performing some behavior a fixed number of times (e.g., pressing a lever 5 times) in order to reinforce the behavior. What happens is after the rat, in this example, presses the lever 5 times and receives food, there is a “pause” in responding; this is the postreinforcement pause. Domjan (2009) said this could be conceptualized almost as procrastination before re-initiating the task due to being “not quite ready to tackle the job,” though not so much due to resting, and thus it might be more aptly labeled the pre-ratio pause.
Anyways! If you’re trying to figure out whether this applies to you, broadly speaking, the first question I would ask is: what was the fixed ratio reinforcement? What behavior were you performing X times to receive a reward? Were you being reinforced after a specific number of specific behaviors? And what was being reinforced? What behavior? How was it being reinforced? Is the behavior no longer occurring on account of “procrastination” before initiating the sequence of behaviors to receive future reward again?
So if you put a rat in a cage and train it to press a lever 5 times before receiving food, then you will eventually witness postreinforcement pause after sufficient trials. But if you take the rat out of the cage entirely and behavior changes, would we attribute that to postreinforcement pause? I would say no.
When you talk about feelings you get into the realm of mentalism, or the focus on internal mental states. When talking about behavioral concepts such as fixed ratio schedules of reinforcement, rarely (if ever) are we even thinking about mental states. We’re more concerned with overt, objective behavior. We don’t deny that thoughts/feelings exist, but they just don’t play a role on many behavioral topics because we cannot observe them, and often people misattribute their behaviors to their thoughts anyways. “I acted this way because I had this thought.” Behaviorism would reject that sentiment, and so it doesn’t really make its way into most behavioral topics.
Often the layman’s meaning of “reinforcement” refers to some sort of feel-good reward, but in behaviorism that’s not what we’re talking about. Reinforcement can actually bring out bad thoughts/feelings so long as it increases the probability of a behavior being performed, which is often what happens in cases of pathology such as depression or anxiety! So I wonder if your boyfriend may be misunderstanding the meaning of the word “reinforcement” in this context, as feeling sad/down does not indicate a change in reinforcement from a behavioral standpoint, but rather your subsequent behavioral patterns and whether a behavior increases/decreases.
I’m just rambling at this point, but hopefully some of this makes sense? Keep an eye out on this ask in the event behaviouristatplay responds or clarifies some point I missed or am misunderstanding as she is far brighter than I in this area!
Weighing in here…
cognitivedefusion provided good questions to consider re: what is currently happening and the likelihood of a post-reinforcement pause (as well as a great description of post-reinforcement pause and where it comes from).
As already stated, the “pause” is simply a period of time where there are no observed responses. There is not necessarily a feeling of “being down” associated with it. After some time (perhaps to consume the reinforcer or re-establish motivation for it), the rate of responding will increase again to levels that earn our leaner another reinforcer. When studying, I might for example, set myself up on schedule where I read five pages and can play a game of Candy Crush Saga. Once the game is finished it might take some time to get started again (oh look, what else is happening on Facebook) and finish the next five pages. Since the delivery of reinforcement is not based on time, I can essentially take as much time as I want before I am motivated for another round of Candy Crush Saga.
Another thought to consider may be the quality and quantity of reinforcement you are receiving now versus when you were at school. School can be a very rich source of reinforcement - social reinforcement (e.g, peer attention, teacher feedback), mastery (i.e., that feeling of accomplishment from task completion), token reinforcement (e.g., grades, awards) etc. Often when we change environments, it takes some time before we find new sources of reinforcement. Are there things you are currently doing (or have plans on doing) that will allow you to come in contact with similar levels of reinforcement as before? In the face of change, one might consider establishing new routines and patterns of behaviour so that contact with reinforcement can still occur. You may not be able to perform your usual repertoire but you can learn to do something else - whether related to employment, volunteering, social events, taking time for leisure or to learn more about something you find interesting. All of these can become new sources of reinforcement outside of high school.
So congrats on your graduating! You did it! May that hard work and effort lead you to even more reinforcement.