Herrnsteins Matching Law

matching law was formulated by the American experimental psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein (1930-1994) who observed and recorded the behavior of pigeons pecking two keys for food reinforcement delivered on concurrent variable interval (i.e., an average, non-fixed amount of elapsed time) schedules. The pigeons yielded response curves that con formed closely to a predicted line of perfect matching where response ratios are matched to ratios of obtained reinforcements. The matching law is defined as the matching of response ratios to reinforcement ratios where the match is most robust when dealing with concurrent variable interval/variable interval and concurrent variable interval/variable ratio reinforcement schedules of operant behavior. Experiments using pigeons, rats, and people as participants show that the matching law applies when they choose between alternative sources of food, brain stimulation, and information, respectively. The three species, doing different things for different consequences, all crowd the theoretical "matching line." The acknowledged qualifications on the matching law involve three empirical issues: the equivalence of responses, the equivalence of rewards, and the interactions among drives. Much is unsettled about matching as a general principle, but various quantitative conclusions can be drawn regarding the law. For example, experiments consistently show that a response rises in rate either when its reward increases or when the reward for other concurrent responses decreases. Inversely, a response declines either when its reward decreases or when other available responses gain reward. Because pleasures and pains are always felt relative to a context ("total rewards that are available"), the traditional law of effect may more properly be called the law of relative effect. In this way, the law of relative effect is considered to be a principle of hedonic relativity where individuals that are subject to its workings allocate their behavior according to the relative gain connected with each. Therefore, an animal or person may work at a maximal rate for a pittance, if the alternatives are poor enough. In contrast, when the alternatives improve, even generous rewards may fail to produce much of any sort of activity. The relativity of the law of effect explains why context is so important for how people behave. Herrnstein defined the law of relative effect as the rate of a given response that is proportional to its rate of reinforcement relative to the reinforcement for all other responses. However, although the relative law of effect predicts well for simple variable interval reinforcement schedules, it has failed to serve as a basis for a more general principle of reinforcement. See also EFFECT, LAW OF; SKINNER'S OPERANT CONDITIONING THEORY. REFERENCES

Herrnstein, R. J. (1961). Relative and absolute strength of response as a function of frequency of reinforcement. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 4, 267-272. Herrnstein, R. J. (1970). On the law of effect.

Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 13, 243-266. Herrnstein, R. J. (1971). Quantitative hedonism. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 8, 399-412. Rachlin, H. (1971). On the tautology of the matching law. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 15, 249-251.

Herrnstein, R. J. (1974). Formal properties of the matching law. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 21, 159-164.

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