Yes, I know, it sounds fancy. According to Cooper et al. (2020), non-contingent reinforcement (NCR) is a procedure in which stimuli with known reinforcing properties are presented on fixed-time or variable-time schedules completely independent of behavior, often used as an antecedent intervention to reduce problem behavior.
Reinforcement is something that is desired or appreciated. Reinforcement can be positive (+) meaning it is given to or gotten by me and I like it. Reinforcement can also be negative (-) meaning it is taken from or stopped by me because it was annoying and that annoyance has now stopped bothering me - whew!
It's the weekend and your boss calls. He has an emergency call at a customers facility and he wants you to go with him to help fix the problem. You only just got off work, parked, and you are just walking by your mailbox, headed for your front door.
Non-contingent positive (+) reinforcement
You open the mailbox and retrieve a blue envelope with your name handwritten on the front. You can see there is no return address indicating who the envelope is from. Holding the envelope it feels like a card plus a little something more, maybe a piece of paper, a stick of gum, or money. Feeling somewhat curious, you stand by the mailbox and carefully slide your finger under the flap, avoiding a paper cut, and pull out a card. Inside the card you find a crisp $100 bill. Wow! Now you are curious and want to know why, why have you been given this gift? You turn your attention to the card and find that it is blank. There is no message inside and no clue as to where the money came from and no explanation as to why it was sent. You turn the card over, the back is blank. You look again at the envelope and peer inside. Nothing.
How do feel about receiving this money?
Does this money make you feel differently about going to work with your boss?
Now imagine that this morning when you woke up and checked your bank balance it was a pitiful $2. Your paycheck will not be deposited in your bank account until Tuesday (that's 4 days away) and you need to pay your electric bill, it's $50. You check the mailbox you find a blue envelope with your name handwritten on the front. You can see there is no return address indicating who the envelope is from....inside the card you find a crisp $100 bill...
Now how do you feel about receiving this money?
Does this money make you feel differently about going to work with your boss? What if, as you stand at the mailbox contemplating the money, you remember having seen a small stack of blue envelopes sitting on your boss's desk? Now how would you feel about helping your boss on the weekend?
Non-contingent reinforcement assumes that because of the reinforcement, you are more likely to cooperate with what is being asked of you. And, it actually does work and we think it works because of how it makes us feel.
Even God uses non-contingent reinforcement as His kindness is meant to draw us to repentance (Romans 2:4).
Say what? I know, who would have thought that the science of behavior was in the scriptures. Look at this one in Matthew 5:45 "For He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous."
I know what you're thinking, non-contingent reinforcement may not work. Let's go back to the crisp $100 bill in the mailbox. It brightens your day, makes you feel a little better, making you more likely to feel okay about going back to work to help the boss. But, what if you received that same anonymous crisp $100 bill every Friday. Would you start, after some time, to take it for granted? Would you start to appreciate it less? Would it, over time, have no effect on your feelings about helping your boss on the weekend?
I think we would have to say, that yes, we would start to take it for granted. But, because of the extra $100 a week, we might become a little less strict about spending, the value of the crisp $100 bill that arrives on Fridays will change depending on the current bank balance and level of need.
In applied behavior analysis work, we use non-contingent reinforcement for short periods of time, to decrease problem behaviors and increase skills. Once the non-contingent reinforcement is started, it has to be faded slowly over time, as you can imagine!
Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2020). Applied Behavior Analysis. Pearson Education Limited.