The Psychology Behind Joke Reading: Variable Ratio Schedule of Reinforcement

What schedule of reinforcement is a joke reader on?

In most joke books, an average of only 1 in 10 jokes is hilarious, and the rest are terrible. But most people will plow through all the jokes looking for the good ones. What schedule of reinforcement is a joke reader on?


The joke reader is on a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement, a psychological concept where behaviors are reinforced at unpredictable intervals, leading to persistent engagement in the behavior despite frequent non-reinforcement.

The schedule of reinforcement that a joke reader is on when looking for the funny jokes among many not-so-good ones is called a variable ratio schedule. This is a concept from operant conditioning, a psychological principle that explains how behaviors are learned and repeated based on consequences that follow them. In this case, readers keep going through the jokes (behavior) because they are reinforced by finding a hilarious joke (consequence), even though that reinforcement does not come after every joke but at unpredictable intervals.

Variable ratio schedules are known for creating high rates of response and persistence in behavior, because the reinforcement (in this case, the hilarious joke) could come at any time, which keeps individuals engaged in the activity.

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