Variable Interval and the Schedule of Reinforcement: Examples & Quiz

  • Lesson
  • Quiz
  • Like?
Taught by

Chris Clause

In this lesson, you will learn what variable-interval schedules of reinforcement are and how they are utilized in everyday life. Following completion of this lesson, you will have the opportunity to test your knowledge with a short quiz.

We also recommend watching Extraneous & Confounding Variables: Differences & Examples and Continuous, Discrete & Categorical Variables: Definition and Examples

What are Variable-Interval Schedules of Reinforcement?

What do email and pop quizzes have in common? They're both everyday examples of variable-interval schedules of reinforcement - one of four commonly used schedules of reinforcement that rely on the principles of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is a type of associative learning in which a person's behavior changes according to consequences associated with that behavior.

In order to get a clear understanding of the concept, let's look closely at the individual words that comprise the concept. In the world of behavioral psychology, 'schedule' refers to how often reinforcement is provided. 'Reinforcement' is a reward. Once a certain behavior is exhibited, then a reinforcer is presented. The concept of reinforcement is that the reinforcer should provide motivation for the behavior to be repeated.

In the context of operant conditioning, 'variable' means that a behavior is being reinforced on an inconsistent schedule. 'Interval' refers to the passage of time between reinforcement. So, altogether, a variable-interval schedule of reinforcement is one in which the reinforcement (the reward) is provided after an inconsistent amount of time has passed and following a specific behavior being performed. Let's look at some examples to help this make more sense.

Everyday Examples

Many people use email to communicate. You never really know when new messages are going to pop up, but chances are you keep checking for them. Receiving a message serves as a reinforcer, or reward for, checking. You might check your email at 9:00 a.m. and have 5 new messages, at 11:00 a.m. and have none, and then at 3:00 p.m. and have 7. As long as you periodically continue to receive messages, your checking behavior will continue; however, this behavior can be influenced by the number of messages received. If you don't receive any messages for 5 days, you may check less often. On the contrary, if you receive several messages each time you check your email, you will probably check more often. In this case, your behavior is an effect of variable-interval schedules of reinforcement. You receive a reward (new messages) for a behavior (checking your email), and the reward is presented on a variable schedule (you can't predict when it is coming).

Unlock Content Over 8,500 lessons in all major subjects

Get FREE access for 5 days,
just create an account.

Start a FREE trial

No obligation, cancel anytime.

Want to learn more?

Select a subject to preview related courses:

Start your free trial to take this quiz
As a premium member, you can take this quiz and also access over 8,500 fun and engaging lessons in math, English, science, history, and more. Get access today with a FREE trial!
Free 5-day trial
It only takes a minute to get started. You can cancel at any time.
Already registered? Login here for access.


  • Research Methods in Psychology Courses
  • Supplemental Lessons
  • Popular Articles

Search Our Courses

Did you like this?
Yes No

Thanks for your feedback!

What didn't you like?

What didn't you like?

Education Portal Video Lessons

The smarter way to study Short videos, Real results
  • More affordable than tutoring
  • All major high school and college subjects
  • Unlimited access to all 8,500+ video Lessons
  • Study on your own schedule
Try it Free
Copyright