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Superimposed schedules of reinforcement is a term in psychology which refers to a structure of rewards where two or more simple schedules of reinforcement operate simultaneously. The reinforcers can be positive and/or negative. An example would be a person who comes home after a long day at work. The behavior of opening the front door is rewarded by a big kiss on lips by the person's spouse and a rip in the pants from the family dog jumping enthusiastically. Another example of superimposed schedules of reinforcement would be a pigeon in an experimental cage pecking at a button. The pecks result in a hopper of grain being delivered every twentieth peck and access to water becoming available after every two hundred pecks.

Superimposed schedules of reinforcement are a type of compound schedule that evolved from the initial work on simple schedules of reinforcement by B. F. Skinner and his colleagues (Skinner and Ferster, 1957). They demonstrated that reinforcers could be delivered on schedules, and further that organisms behaved differently under different schedules. Rather than a reinforcer, such as food or water, being delivered every time as a consequence of some behavior, a reinforcer could be delivered after more than one instance of the behavior. For example, a pigeon may be required to peck a button switch ten times before food is made available to the pigeon. This is called a "ratio schedule." Also, a reinforcer could be delivered after an interval of time passed following a target behavior. An example is a rat that is given a food pellet two minutes after the rat pressed a lever. This is called an "interval schedule." In addition, ratio schedules can deliver reinforcement following fixed or variable number of behaviors by the individual organism. Likewise, interval schedules can deliver reinforcement following fixed or variable intervals of time following a single response by the organism. Individual behaviors tend to generate response rates that differ based upon how the reinforcement schedule is created. Much subsequent research in many labs examined the effects on behaviors of scheduling reinforcers. If an organism is offered the opportunity to choose between or among two or more simple schedules of reinforcement at the same time, the reinforcement structure is called a "concurrent schedule of reinforcement." Brechner (1974, 1977) introduced the concept of "superimposed schedules of reinforcement in an attempt to create a laboratory analogy of social traps, such as when humans overharvest their fisheries or tear down their rainforests. Brechner created a situation where simple reinforcement schedules were superimposed upon each other. In other words, a single response or group of responses by an organism led to multiple consequences. Concurrent schedules of reinforcement can be thought of as "or" schedules, and superimposed schedules of reinforcement can be thought of as "and" schedules. Brechner and Linder (1981) and Brechner (1987) expanded the concept to describe how superimposed schedules and the social trap analogy could be used to analyze the way energy flows through systems.


Superimposed schedules of reinforcement have many real-world applications in addition to generating social traps. Many different human individual and social situations can be created by superimposing simple reinforcement schedules. For example a human being could have simultaneous tobacco and alcohol addictions. Even more complex situations can be created or simulated by superimposing two or more concurrent schedules. For example, a high school senior could have a choice between going to Stanford University or UCLA, and at the same time have the choice of going into the Army or the Air Force, and simultaneously the choice of taking a job with an internet company or a job with a software company. That would be a reinforcement structure of three superimposed concurrent schedules of reinforcement. Superimposed schedules of reinforcement can be used to create the three classic conflict situations (approach-approach conflict, approach-avoidance conflict, and avoidance-avoidance conflict) described by Kurt Lewin (1935)and can be used to operationalize other Lewinian situations analyzed by his force field analysis.


  • Brechner, K. C. (1977). An experimental analysis of social traps. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 13, 552-564.
  • Brechner, K.C. (1987) Social Traps, Individual Traps, and Theory in Social Psychology. Pasadena, CA: Time River Laboratory, Bulletin No. 870001.
  • Brechner, K.C. and Linder, D.E. (1981), A social trap analysis of energy distribution systems, in Advances in Environmental Psychology, Vol. 3, A. Baum & Singer, JE, eds. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum & Associates.
  • Lewin, K. (1935) A dynamic theory of personality: Selected papers. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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