Conditioning New Reinforcers

During the course of our day to day lives we ask for many different things. We may ask the person at a lunch counter for a cup of coffee, we ask our children to get ready for school, we may ask the dog to sit down, and we may even ask inanimate objects to do things like telling our computer to “open” when a program is slow in responding. The reason we ask for so many different things is because we, like most people, have a variety of items and events that serve as reinforcers. Many things are valuable to us depending on our circumstances.

Many children with autism have an extremely limited range of items and events that serve as reinforcers. Because these children may not be reinforced by a wide range of experiences, there may be a general tendency for them to respond to their environment with less variability in behavior. According to all descriptions of autism this is a defining characteristic of the disorder. If there is not a wide pool of reinforcers available to a student, the number of mands that can be taught will be quite limited. In order to teach a diverse mand repertoire, effort must be given to extending the number of events that serve as reinforcers.

As indicated in basic behavioral research, the stimuli that serve as reinforcement do not remain static. Some reinforcers will remain strong, others fade in strength and some neutral events gradually take on reinforcing characteristics. These processes are not random, however. The value of items or other events that serve as reinforcers or as neutral stimuli can be altered through teaching.

A basic behavioral principle is that an event that repeatedly occurs in close time with presentation of an already established reinforcer can in itself become a reinforcer. This is the concept of conditioned reinforcement. Conditioning occurs when the two events (the established reinforcer and the neutral event) occur close in time and contingent on some other behavior. Most of the things that serve as reinforcement for us in our day to day lives have been learned through this process. For instance, we have learned to like car keys because they are associated with another reinforcer, namely taking car rides. If money wasn’t paired with access to a wide range of things that are important to us, it wouldn’t have value. We have learned to like money.

The principle of conditioned reinforcement can be a major tool in our work with children who may not have a wide range of established reinforcers. The power of this principle lies in the fact that we can teach others to like things that they otherwise may have ignored.

An Example of Conditioning: Pairing Presentation of a Known Reinforcer with a Neutral Stimulus

  • Bubbles are a neutral stimulus: the student regularly ignores them when they are presented as a probe item on a preference assessment
  • Bubbles are presented and then immediately after the bubbles are blown, some candy is given to the student. Candy had previously been determined to be a strong reinforcer.
  • Bubbles are repeatedly paired with candy and other known reinforcers.
  • Eventually the child begins looking at and even reaching toward the bubbles.
  • Blowing bubbles then become an event that can serve as reinforcement for the student.

A second way of conditioning new reinforcers is more technical, but simple in its implementation. One can condition a new item as reinforcing by making its presence necessary for some other event to occur. In other words to get what you want, you have to first get something else to occur. If this happens enough you learn to like the other item almost as much as the first. For instance, a person may learn to like a certain store because the particular store sells their favorite things. Eventually the person learns to like going to that store even if they aren’t going to buy anything.

Dr. Jack Michael explains this in his book (Michael, 2004), Concepts and Principles of Behavior Analysis. He notes that an event that serves as a reinforcer through behavior evoked by a transitive motivative operation can later take on reinforcing characteristics. It is fair to say that events can serve multiple functions. He notes that many and probably most forms of conditioned reinforcers are dependent themselves upon other stimulus conditions. We begin to like the stuff that is associated with our obtaining the stuff we like.

Conditioning a New reinforcer Through a Transitive Motive Operation (CMO-T)

  • A student enjoys playing with certain toy figurines on the floor.
  • The student’s teacher may start delivering the toys to the student by having them drop down a tube.
  • In order to access the figurines, the student needs to have the tube present (the MO for figurines establishes the value of the tube and evokes all tube getting behavior.)
  • Prior to this the tube was a neutral stimulus.
  • Now, due to the CMO-T effects (needing the tube to get the toys), access to the tube becomes a conditioned reinforcer.