Motivating Operation: Culprit or Unsung Hero?

Harla B. Frank, M.S., BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

After a time, you may find that ‘having’ is not so pleasing a thing, after all, as ‘wanting.’  It is not logical, but it is often true. 

(Spock, Amok Time, Star Trek: The Original Series, 1967)

Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy, could easily have been referring to motivating operations with this assertion.  It appears that “wanting” can be interpreted as a state of deprivation when the thing that one is deprived of takes on more value and once that state of deprivation is filled – satiated, the thing desired no longer holds the same value (Laraway, Snycerski, Michael, & Poling, 2003).  These unsung heroes of the “antecedent variables” world have the power to make or break even the most proficiently crafted behavior intervention plans (BIPs).  And, the power the behavior analyst – or parent – or prison guard . . . . can attain by learning to recognize and manipulate these variables is intriguing.  These subtle antecedents can contribute to a client’s decision regarding whether an action is worth it or not.

Motivating operations (MOs) are at work daily.  The reinforcing value of sleep for the college student who studied until 3:00 a.m. is increased due to sleep deprivation, and she will race home from class to obtain that nap that she has been thinking about since she finished the last question on the physics test.  Sleep is necessary for survival of the species, as is food, water, procreation, and shelter; these basic needs of life are unconditioned stimuli – there is no need for humans (or animals) to be taught to value these things – no learning is necessary.  The state of satiation – of having enough food, water, etc., at a given moment in time, changes the value of those variables momentarily, and the frequency with which the behaviors that have obtained those variables are expressed (Laraway et al., 2003).

It is quite easy to understand how deprivation of food could increase the reinforcing value of food, but what about those variables that have acquired reinforcing value through experience?  All one needs to do is observe the reaction of adults to a commercial for the latest iPhone or a child to the latest video game to identify conditioned reinforcers – those reinforcers that have acquired their reinforcing value through a process of learning through experience – even vicarious experience.  The young man who increases his overtime hours so he can obtain the latest sports car is acting out of a state of deprivation – of the impressive car; the attention of a young lady at the office who will obviously be impressed with his “new set of wheels,” or even out of deprivation of status (Laraway, et al., 2003).  The deprivation of any – or all – of these reinforcers has rendered the sports car highly reinforcing – and increased the behavior he is engaging in to obtain the money for the car (Laraway et al., 2003).

Motivating operations (MOs) do not just influence the reinforcing value of a stimulus; they also influence the punishing value of a stimulus (Laraway et al., 2003).  Consider the effect of removing a privilege from a child – let us say video game time.  The contingency is that the child begins the day with 90-minutes of video game time that is presented after supper, but for every incidence of using a profane word, he loses 30-minutes of his time.  If the child has lost his video game time two days in a row, the value of playing video games is increased and he will work harder to use more acceptable words so he does not lose his privilege.  While the reinforcing value of the video game has increased, so too has the value of the negative punishment that is sure to happen if he does not watch his language (Laraway et al., 2003).  Now, let us look at the same little boy, but this time the situation is slightly different.  Right before his shower the night before, he snuck into is parents’ room and found the iPad and hid it between his mattresses.  After he was tucked in bed that night, he grabbed his headphones and the iPad and played video games until 1:00 a.m.  Then, while his mother was cooking breakfast the next morning, he placed the iPad back in his parents’ room.  Okay, this scenario is an example of a MO having an abolishing effect on the value of the video game time as a reinforcer – and on the value of the removal of the video game time as a punishment.  He is satiated with playing video games and really does not care if he loses the privilege (Laraway et al., 2003).  One can imagine that there will be some profanity used that day!

The ability to control MOs has far-reaching implications for behavior analysts, as well as parents, and all those who are working to modify behavior – including prison guards!  Understanding how to alter the value of a reinforcer or punisher allows more control of the behavior of interest.  In an intensive behavior intervention clinic, the manipulation of MOs, during both establishing operation (EO) and abolishing operation (AO) conditions, was used to teach the appropriate use of the mands, “who” and “which” to three children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum  Disorder (ASD) (Shillingsburg, Bowen, Valentino, & Pierce, 2014).  Discrimination training was used to teach the children to request (mand) “who” or “which” when the information was not available (during the EO condition) and not to request the information when it was presented in the instruction given by the therapist (during the AO condition) (Shillingsburg et al., 2014).  All three children learned to mand “who” and “which” in the appropriate situation – when information for those questions was not provided in the therapist’s instruction (establishing operation condition) (Shillingsburg et al., 2014).  Further, in two of the three children, the appropriate use of these mands generalized to novel items (Shillingsburg et al., 2014).  The same skills for the third child required multiple exemplars for generalization to take place – but it did take place (Shillingsburg et al., 2014).

In a study conducted by Lang et al. (2009), an AO was utilized to diminish the reinforcing value of stereotypy in order to, at least temporarily, reduce the behavior in order to access adequate time periods to teach play skills to a child diagnosed with ASD.  There were two conditions, the AO condition in which the child could engage in stereotypy for 10-minutes prior to the play skills session and a non-abolishing operation (N-AO) condition in which the child went directly to the play skills session without having 10-minutes of uninterrupted stereotypy (Lang et al., 2009).  Not only did the child’s stereotypy diminish in the play skills training that took place after the AO condition, but her functional play skills increased greatly over the non-AO condition (Lang et al., 2009).

Examples are many relating the success of the manipulation of MOs to the reduction of interfering behaviors in the classroom.  O’Reilly et al. (2006) addressed the self-injury and aggression behaviors of two young adults’ tangible- and attention-maintained behaviors by manipulating pre-session conditions to provide free access to the reinforcers in the AO conditions and no access during the EO conditions.  The study showed that providing access to the reinforcers – tangible for one subject and attention for the other, reduced the incidence of the problem behaviors that were typically expressed to obtain those reinforcers (O’Reilly et al., 2006).

In addition to studies investigating the effects of satiation and deprivation on the value of reinforcement and punishment, studies have also been conducted on the effects of stimulant medication, such as Ritalin, on the interfering behaviors of children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).  A study by Northup, Fusilier, Swanson, Roane, and Borrero (1997) investigated the effect of Methylphenidate (MPH; Ritalin) on the reinforcing value of typical tangibles used in classroom BIPs.  By alternating the delivery of the MPH and a placebo, the researchers tested the relative effectiveness of seven reinforcers (Northup et al., 1997).  The study demonstrated a value-altering effect on days when the MPH was administered versus the placebo (Northup et al., 1997).  This effect was particularly noticeable with regard to edible reinforcement (abolishing effect).  Edibles were chosen much less on days when the children had been given MPH (Northup et al., 1997).  In a similar study, Mace et al. (2009) assessed the effectiveness of Concerta XL versus a placebo on the reinforcing effectiveness of attention and the reduction of interfering behaviors.  The researchers found that the stimulant medication “correlated with reductions” in the behaviors but did not reduce those behaviors to acceptable levels (Mace et al.., 2009, p. 180).  Mace et al. postulate that, in some instances, it may be beneficial to pair a function-based BIP with the medication for a better outcome (2009).

The skillful manipulation of MOs to alter the value of reinforcers and punishers in order to increase the effectiveness of a BIP is not restricted to children – or to the classroom.  Dixon, Buono, and Belisle (2016) studied the effect of contrived MOs on the “decrease of the subjective value” of money (delay discounting) with regard to varying amounts of time until the receipt of that money with “disordered gamblers” (p. 986).  The researchers found that the contrived MOs of current salary, double salary, and half-current salary – even though hypothetical scenarios, impacted the decisions the young men made regarding choice of immediate lower payment or delayed greater payment (Dixon et al., 2016).  The subjects made more “optimal choices for delayed” greater pay when the double pay MO was in operation (Dixon et al., 2016, p. 989).

Thus far, the focus of this article has been on the human animal, but can the manipulation of MOs work with the canine variety as well?  Feuerbacher and Wynne (2016) determined that they can.  After determining that owner access was the main reinforcer for three dogs, the access was restricted to increase the value of access to the owner (EO) (Feuerbacher & Wynne, 2016).  Even though various competing reinforcers were made available in the closed room, the dogs engaged in the target behavior that was required to leave the room and access the owner; however, toys in the room did increase the latency between the owner leaving the room and the dogs engaging in the target behavior (Feuerbacher & Wynne, 2016).  The toys that were used were familiar to the dogs; it would be interesting to learn if novel toys would have an abolishing effect on the reinforcing value of access to the owner.

Behavior analysts encounter, first hand, the, sometimes, day-to-day fluctuations in reinforcer and punisher effectiveness with clients.  The culprit – or the unsung hero, may be the subtle but powerful MO lurking in the shadows.  It is up to every behavior analyst to uncover this seemingly hidden stimulus and manipulate it to the ultimate advantage of their client’s behavior.

Let us know your tips on effective uses of Motivating Operations in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!


Dixon, M. R., Buono, F. D., & Belisle, J.  (2016).  Contrived motivating operations alter delay-discounting values of disordered gamblers.  Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 49, 986-990.

Feuerbacher, E. N., & Wynne, C. D. L.  (2016).  Application of functional analysis methods to assess human-dog interactions.  Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 49, 970-974.

Lang, R., O’Reilly, M., Sigafoos, J., Lancioni, G. E., Machalicek, W., Rispoli, M., & White, P. (2009).  Enhancing the effectiveness of a play intervention by abolishing the reinforcing value of stereotypy: A pilot study.  Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 42, 889-894.

Laraway, S., Snycerski, S., Michael, J., & Poling, A.  (2003).  Motivating operations and terms to describe them: Some further refinements.  Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 36, 407-414.

Mace, F. C., Prager, K. L., Thomas, K., Kochy, H., Dyer, T. J., Perry, L., & Pritchard, D. (2009).  Effects of stimulant medications under varied motivational operations.  Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 42, 177-183.

Northup, J., Fusilier, I., Swanson, V., Roane, H., & Borrero, J.  (1997).  An evaluation of methylpenidate as a potential establishing operation for some common classroomreinforcers.  Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 30, 615-625.

O’Reilly, M. F., Sigafoos, J., Edrisinha, C., Lancioni, G., Cannella, H., Choi, H. Y., Barretto, A. (2006).  A preliminary examination of the evocative effects of the establishing operation. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 39, 239-242.

Shillingsburg, M. A., Bowen, C. N., Valentino, A. L., & Pierce, L. E.  (2014).  Mands for information using “Who?” and “Which?” in the presence of establishing and abolishing operations.  Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 47, 136-150.


Harla Frank, M.S., BCBA earned her Master’s degree in Psychology, with an emphasis in Applied Behavior Analysis, from Florida State University.  Since receiving her certification as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) in 2007, she has worked primarily with children and young adults on the Autism Spectrum, but has also worked with adults with a variety of diagnoses and needs. She has served as an expert witness for Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) in the Colorado court system and has had the privilege of providing “ABA approaches” training to foster care staff and families.

Since 2010, Harla has taught ABA course sequences, as well as general psychology courses, for Kaplan University.  Currently, she also contracts with a pediatric home healthcare company in Denver to provide ABA therapy to children with a variety of diagnoses. You can contact her at [email protected].

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1 Comment on "Motivating Operation: Culprit or Unsung Hero?"

  1. Great Read. Found some new food for thought, especially about the role of vicarious experiences in altering value of reinforcers. I am also able to think of the role of rules in enhancing the reinforcer value. Great article, thanks for sharing.

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