Truly Random Operant RespondingResults and Reasons

Greg Jensen, Claire Miller and Allen Neuringer

in The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Cognition

Second edition

Published in print March 2012 | ISBN: 9780195392661
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Library of Psychology

 Truly Random Operant RespondingResults and Reasons

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  • Psychology
  • Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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People and nonhuman animals have the ability to respond unpredictably, indeed in random-like ways, and to do so as an adaptive response to environmental conditions. This chapter discusses evidence for two related claims. The first is that response variability is precisely controlled by reinforcers that are contingent upon levels of variability; that is, variability can serve as an operant response. The second claim is that levels of variability can approach that of a random, or stochastic, model; that is, operant responding can be truly unpredictable. These claims, if valid, have important implications for how we behave, normally and abnormally, and may help us to explain voluntary action, something that is often thought to be exclusive to humans and to depend upon highest-level cognitive capacities.

Keywords: response variability; reinforcers; unpredictability; stochastic behavior

Article.  13765 words. 

Subjects: Psychology ; Cognitive Psychology ; Cognitive Neuroscience

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