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Successive Approximation

  1. Stephanie K. Meador,
  2. David B. Hatfield

Published Online: 30 JAN 2010

DOI: 10.1002/9780470479216.corpsy0961

Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology

Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology

How to Cite

Meador, S. K. and Hatfield, D. B. 2010. Successive Approximation. Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology. 1–2.

Author Information

  1. Developmental Behavioral Health, Colorado Springs, Colorado

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 30 JAN 2010


The terms successive approximation and shaping are shorthand for the phrase “successive reinforcement of closer and closer approximations to the target behavior” (Skinner, 1953). This procedure is distinct from other operant reinforcement methods (e.g., chaining), in that it relies on both reinforcement and extinction applied to a changing set of criteria responses (Galbicka, 1994). The target, or terminal response, is either infrequent or novel to the organism (i.e., has never been performed), limiting the utility of direct reinforcement of the response. Shaping, as the name implies, involves slow transformations of the topography (or shape) of the organism's behavior over time, much like the process of shaping clay into a fine piece of pottery. Initially, a gross or distal response approximating the terminal behavior is sufficient for the delivery of reinforcement. In time, a closer approximation to the terminal response is required for reinforcement. This process continues until only the terminal response elicits reinforcement.


  • changing criterion;
  • differential reinforcement;
  • shaping;
  • skinner