The Role Of The Response-Reinforcer Contingency In Negative Automaintenance

Barry Schwartz, Swarthmore College
D. R. Williams


When a response key is briefly illuminated before a grain reinforcer is presented, key pecking is reliably developed and maintained in pigeons, even if pecking prevents reinforcement (negative automaintenance). This experiment demonstrated that pigeons are sensitive to a negative response-reinforcer contingency, even though it does not eliminate responding. Within individual pigeons, two kinds of trials were compared: red key trials, in which reinforcement was negatively contingent on responding, and white key trials, in which reinforcement was unrelated to responding. Reinforcement frequency in non-contingent trials was yoked to the obtained reinforcement frequency in negatively contingent trials. All eight pigeons pecked substantially more on the non-contingent key than on the negative key, and preferred the non-contingent key to the negative key on occasional “choice” trials where both were presented together. When the stimuli correlated with the two conditions were reversed, the pigeons' behavior also shifted. These response differences are taken as evidence that pigeons are sensitive to the negative response-reinforcer contingency.