Identifying the Reinforcer


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Preferences are Always Changing

Consider how motivation will determine whether a particular item will be an effective reinforcer.  Asking a client to work for food after she just finished a big meal will likely not be effective.  But there are also changes in preference that are not as obvious as appetite.  Consider how some activities and items are more desired some days and less desired others.Ice Cream Flavors

Consider your responses for the following.  Do you expect them to be the same in a month?  Some of your responses will likely be the same, but others will likely change.

  • What would you do with a week off from work?
  • How would you spend a $100 bonus?
  • What would you like to eat for your next meal?
  • Would you rather a gift card to the movies or to a restaurant?

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Think of preference for potential reinforcers like an appetite.  There are many foods that a person prefers, but desire for any one of these foods changes from day to day, or meal to meal.

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Preference Assessments

Young GirlNo matter how carefully a clinician implements a protocol, it will not be effective without a powerful reinforcer.  But if preferences are always changing, how can a clinician know which items are will be effective reinforcers at any given time?

Stimulus preference assessments, or reference assessments for short, are procedures for identifying which items or activities will likely be effective reinforcers.  Preference assessments are used to determine the stimuli that the person prefers at any given time and the relative preference values of those stimuli (high preference vs low preference).  These assessments are always conducted before the demand is presented.  This way the client will be motivated to earn the reinforcer and ready to respond to what the RBT will ask them to do.

There are three categories for assessment procedures (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2007). Techniques for each of these assessment categories will be covered in the topics that follow.

Preference assessment categories:

Asking about preferences
Free operant observation
Trial-based methods

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Identifying which items and activities will be effective reinforcers might be the most important thing an RBT does at any given session with a client.

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