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Differential reinforcement is the process by which the frequency of a desirable behavior is increased while the undesirable alternative behaviors are eliminated. Differential reinforcement is used when the desired behavior already occurs occasionally and when there is an available reinforcer.

The first step to differential reinforcement is to define exactly what the target behavior is, and also to define the undesirable competing behavior. For example, if little Johnny watches three times as much as he studies, the target behavior would be studying, and the undesirable behavior would be watching TV.

The next step is to collect baseline data. Baseline is the period of time before treatment is implemented. The baseline serves as an indication of whether or not treatment is successful. So with Johnny, someone would record and graph the amount of time spent studying and watching TV each day.

Next, a reinforcer must be chosen. An item which the individual (or animal) is willing to work for. Examples of reinforcers are consumable items, social reinforcers (praise), tangible items, etc. For example, Johnny could be reinforced with M & M's. Practicality must also be taken into account, if Johnny loves chocolate but is on a diet, then perhaps video games could be given as reinforcement.

Every time that the desirable behavior is demonstrated it must be immediately reinforced. So for every ten minutes that Johnny studies, he should immediately be given a couple of M & M's. If too much time elapses before the subject is reinforced, the target behavior will not increase in frequency.

There is inevitably a reinforcer which is present with the undesirable behavior. This reinforcer must be eliminated. Johnny likes watching TV because his favorite shows are on it. Johnny's mother puts electronic locks on those channels, and Johnny is no longer reinforced for watching TV.

Throughout the entire process it is important to record the frequency of both the desirable and undesirable behavior, so that progress can be tracked. After the desirable behavior is at the needed level, and the undesirable behavior is virtually eliminated, treatment can be decreased. In order to maintain the behavior an intermittent schedule of reinforcement is needed.