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Surprise Bonus


Techniques Conditioning > Surprise Bonus

Description | Example | Discussion | See also



The surprise bonus is a larger than usual reinforcer. It is unexpected and consequently has a different effect to normal reinforcement.

As a reward, it is useful to make a breakthrough in learning stand out, for example where you have been working for a long time in trying to get a subject to understand what you want of them when you give a particular signal.

As with other reinforcement, give the bonus as close to the desired action as soon as possible.

The surprise can also be given when the subject becomes unresponsive, as this may stimulate them back into being attentive and obedient.

Be careful not to give too many nice surprises or the subject will begin to expect them and may not obey commands when the reward is the 'normal' small amount.


A horse trainer works for a long time to get a horse to accept a saddle. When it first stands still to have the saddle placed on its back, the trainer quickly removes the saddle and lets it run free around the paddock for a while.

A dog trainer has two food pouches, one with liver pieces that are given as special treats for outstanding obedience, such as speed of response or accuracy of desired action.


People put a lot of effort into working out what can be predicted and what our best actions should be in any given situation. When something happens that is unexpected, we go into 'learning mode' as we think carefully about what caused this and how we might act to get another nice surprise. In fact we may create a new category of experiences called 'nice surprises'.

In rationalizing nice surprises we typically make various attributions, including that:

  • We have done something to deserve the surprise.
  • We are superior to other people who did not get the bonus.
  • The person giving the surprise likes and appreciates us.
  • We like the person giving he surprise.
  • That if we do the things that led to the nice surprise, we may receive another such bonus.

Animals are far less sophisticated in their thought but may still respond differently to a nice surprise, for example when they are bored or unwilling.

The Surprise Bonus is also called a Jackpot.

See also

Positive Reinforcement


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