If any reinforcer is presented immediately, such reinforcers are called Immediate reinforcers. For example, a student is given a treat immediately for completing his homework. Because the response is immediate, he is more likely to repeat the behavior again.
To understand immediate reinforcement in detail, let’s go back to the foundation of the establishment of the process, that is called reinforcement.
In Skinner’s theory on Operant Conditioning Learning, the rat ran about performing random behaviors like sniffing, scratching, moving around and so on, until it stumbled upon a lever, upon which it was rewarded with food. Later on, the rat went straight to the lever every time it felt hungry. The major reason for the rat to continuously go back to the lever to claim its reward was the immediate reinforcement which was the food being provided immediately.
But, let’s consider a scenario that the rat wasn’t immediately served with food every time it pressed the lever. If the observer had not seen the rat pressing a lever or let’s say that the reinforcement wasn’t provided immediately and the delay lasted more than a minute. The rat, at which time, would have tried some other behaviors like moving around, scratching the walls and so on. This would lead to the reinforcement of other incidental behaviors like scratching, moving around and the likes of it, which were intervened following the lever press.
Immediate reinforcement, on the other hand, leads to reinforcement of desired behavior. The success of Skinner on making the rat press the lever for food is the prime example. If the process had been delayed reinforcement instead, Skinner’s experiment would not have been successful.
In case of humans, immediate rewards or consequences can be highly alluring. For instance, the immediate gratification of unprotected, risky sex in romantic passionate moments often leads to ignorance of safe sex.
The examples are endless where humans choose immediate gratification over delayed ones. One example is the continuous usage of fuel-consuming vehicles in a non-stop rate. We save time and energy with the use of vehicles, which is polluting the environment and causing continuous effect in global climate change. But, with the perks of immediate reinforcement in sight, we tend to ignore these effects.