How NOT to talk about reinforcers.


By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Founding Editor,

Andy Lattal published an article on the Aubrey Daniels Institute blog, which strikes at the core of many concerns in the field today.  As demand for certified behavior analysts skyrockets, many are concerned that we might be meeting this demand at the expense of quality training.

Dr. Lattal’s post was a succinct discussion of an issue we see far too often in our field – behavior analysts who do not talk about behavior analysis correctly.  This may seem like an unimportant issue to some, but how we talk about things directly influences what we do about those things. 

Lattal specifically focused on how we talk about reinforcers.

A case-in-point is a phrase I’m sure most of you have heard before – choosing “effective” reinforcers.  This phrase has redundancy written all over it.  If reinforcers are reinforcing, then they are necessarily “effective” by definition.  At the heart of the issue, which Dr. Lattal emphasizes, is confusing reinforcers with “things” rather than “functions.”

An object or an event alone is not a reinforcer.  The object or event is a reinforcer when it participates in a functional relation called “reinforcement.”  Likewise, a reinforcer isn’t something selected on a preference assessment – what is selected are objects.  They only become reinforcers when one demonstrates reinforcing functions of the preferred item.

If this article acquires reinforcing functions for your reading behavior, check out the full article in the hyperlink above.  Also consider subscribing to via email at the top of the page to receive updates directly to your inbox!

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns and  Todd serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and as an editorial board member for Behavior and Social Issues.  He has worked as a behavior analyst in day centers, residential providers, homes, and schools, and served as the director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Todd’s areas of expertise include writing, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at [email protected].