Reinforcer Sampling – A way to get people to do what they already like to do.

By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

bSci21 Founding Editor

Today, we go back in time to 1968.  It was the very first issue of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis and Ted Ayllon and Nathan Azrin published a classic article from Anna State Hospital demonstrating an early success of Applied Behavior Analysis in an in-patient psychiatric hospital.

Here’s what they did:

Ayllon and Azrin noticed a peculiar thing happening in hospitals – patients utilizing token economies were commonly seen not to exchange their tokens for reinforcing events that they would freely interact with if given free access.  The authors specifically cited a musical event — the patients seemed to enjoy the music when they attended, but they attended rarely even though they were frequently reminded of the event.

The authors posited that they needed to strengthen the patients’ behavior of selecting a reinforcer.  They sought to investigate the effects of a reinforcer sampling procedure on reinforcer utilization.

Experiment 1:

Participants included 24 patients of the ward, and the reinforcing event was a 15-minute walk outside.  A staff member would announce that a walk was scheduled, and everyone who wanted to go would line up an exchange a token before going outside.

Next came the reinforcer sampling procedure.  Instead of having the patients line up at the door inside, the team had the patients sample a bit of the reinforcing event by having the patients line up outside of the door.  In this way, the patients had a chance to sample some of the outdoor stimuli associated with going for a walk.  Patients could then decide whether or not they wanted to exchange a token for the walk.

Results indicated that only 4 of the patients participated in walks in the days before the sampling procedure.  However, once the sampling procedure was implemented, six additional patients (10 total) participated in the walks.

Experiment 2:

33 patients participated in a subsequent study designed to test the generality of the sampling procedure across another reinforcing situation — a musical event.  The same basic sampling procedure from Experiment 1 was used here.  When patients could assemble next to the open room such that they could hear the music before spending a token, the number of patients attending the event increased by over 15.

Experiment 3:

39 patients participated in a third study testing the procedure across a third reinforcing event — going to a movie theater.  In this case, participants could view the movie for a brief period before paying a token to watch the full movie.  Results indicated an increase in patients attending movies, as well as number of movies selected.

Be sure to check out the original classic article for many more details not covered here.  Do you think reinforcer sampling can be useful in your practice?  Let us know how in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles 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

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