Two experiments examined the relation between response variability and sensitivity to changes in reinforcement contingencies. In Experiment 1, two groups of college students were provided complete instructions regarding a button-pressing task; the instructions stated "press the button 40 times for each point" (exchangeable for money). Two additional groups received incomplete instructions that omitted the pattern of responding required for reinforcement under the same schedule. Sensitivity was tested in one completely instructed and one incompletely instructed group after responding had met a stability criterion, and for the remaining two groups after a short exposure to the original schedule. The three groups of subjects whose responding was completely instructed or who had met the stability criterion showed little variability at the moment of change in the reinforcement schedule. The responding of these three groups also was insensitive to the contingency change. Incompletely instructed short-exposure responding was more variable at the moment of schedule change and was sensitive to the new contingency in four of six cases. In Experiment 2, completely and incompletely instructed responding first met a stability criterion. This was followed by a test that showed no sensitivity to a contingency change. A strategic instruction was then presented that stated variable responding would work best. Five of 6 subjects showed increased variability after this instruction, and all 6 showed sensitivity to contingency change. The findings are discussed from a selectionist perspective that describes response acquisition as a process of variation, selection, and maintenance. From this perspective, sensitivity to contingency changes is described as a function of variables that produce response variability.
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