Motivative Operations

Without motivation, most behavior will not occur. All operant behavior involves motivation. There are multiple examples of motivational effects in everyday life:

  • One does not reach for doorknobs unless there is a reason to open the door.
  • People will not reach in their wallets until they need money, a credit card, identification or some other items within the wallet.
  • Rats do not move much in a maze if they are well-fed.

On the other hand, events can occur which make behavior more likely:

  • People run to open doors when someone shouts “fire”.
  • Needing to make a purchase will lead people to reach in their wallets.
  • A rat that has not been fed will be very likely to explore a maze.

All mands have one thing in common: in the antecedent condition, there is a Motivative Operation in place. In other words, the individual “wants something.” Unless motivation is in place for the learner, you cannot do mand training.

In 1950, Drs. Keller and Schoenfield introduced the term establishing operations to describe events in the environment that establish the value of other events. The term establishing operation means that changes in the environment can affect how much a person wants something and how likely they are to do something to have that event happen. Because the value of events can be altered so that the person either wants more of the event or less of the event (sometimes called an abolishing operation), in 2004 Dr. Jack Michael and others (Polling, Michael, Laraway, 2004) suggested the term Establishing Operation be changed to Motivative Operation.

Remember that motivation is in the environment and not in the student. In much of the educational and psychological literature, motivation is discussed as intrinsic to the individual and not necessarily related to events occurring outside of the person’s skin. People will say “he doesn’t want it” or “that’s not interesting to him”. Such descriptions do not allow teachers to explore variables in the environment that may be more directly associated with the individual’s tendency to make requests or engage in other behaviors.

Motivative Operations have two basic effects. Both effects are temporary and change with the passage of time.

Chart 3

Motivative Operations
Value Altering EffectsFrequency Altering Effects
Establishes the value of stimuli: events or items that will serve as reinforcersEvokes any behaviors that in the past have resulted in obtaining the events or items
Abolishes the value of stimuli: events or items that will not serve as reinforcersAbates any behavior that in the past have resulted in obtaining the events or items

The first effect is altering the value of reinforcers (value altering effect). This means that the person will be more likely to want something.

The second effect is increasing the likelihood of behaviors that have produced those reinforcers in the past (evocative effect). This means that the person will be more likely to do something to get what they want.

When planning to train a student to make requests, we need to consider both aspects of motivation. Instructors will need to insure that the child wants something and also insure that the student is likely to do something to get it. The instructor must know what the student wants and must know what the student is to do to get it. In many cases the instructor will have to alter the environment to get the student to want something.

Technically speaking, both the reinforcer establishing and the evocative effects are important considerations in the mand training process. Both aspects of the motivative operation have particular implications for those engaged in teaching students to mand. One cannot begin mand training unless a known stimulus is established as a reinforcer. The procedures to establish events and items as reinforcers involve environmental manipulations that often are discussed in terms of deprivation. Mand trainers must set up conditions that make events or items valuable.

Keep in mind that when an event becomes valuable to a student they can do many different things to make it more likely that they will get what they want. This can include asking with words that are acceptable to others, asking with a demanding tone of voice, or even engaging in temper tantrums or other problem behaviors. In mand training, the instructor must work to be sure that only certain behaviors will result in the student getting what they want.

Behavior that can be selected for reinforcement as a result of the evocative effect of MOs is central to mand training. Once a reinforcer is established as valuable, the individual will emit any behavior that results in a high probability of obtaining the reinforcer. The central mission of mand training, once adequate reinforcement is established, is to differentially reinforce certain responses while simultaneously putting on extinction other responses. The instructor makes sure inappropriate mands do not get reinforced and appropriate mands do. The evocative effect provides the variation which allows the mand trainer to engage in “pruning the bush of possible responses.”

The basic principles of behavior suggest that some operant behaviors are maintained by access to unlearned reinforcers such as food, drink, air, warmth, and so forth. Other behaviors are maintained by access to reinforcers that have been learned in the course of the individual’s life experience. The motivation for unlearned and learned reinforcers differs in how they are established.