Behavior 101 #4: Behavioral Operations

To review previous posts in this series go here:
#1- 4 quadrants
#2- Reinforcement schedules & Extinction
#3- Functions of Behavior

As we learned about in previous Behavior 101 posts- all behavior functions for a reason and is controlled by what consequence follows it- reinforcement or punishment. What is reinforcing or punishing to me is not necessarily the same for you. If I washed your car, and in return you gave me the latest copy of The Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, I’d probably be over at your house washing your car every month. If you gave that to my husband, he’d probably roll his eyes and throw a soapy sponge at you. He lives with a behaviorist- the majority of his day is spent trying to get me to shut up about it. He couldn’t care less about the field. But offer him maybe the latest BBC Top Gear show or magazine, or some random performance car part- and he’d be a happy camper. He’ll be washing your car frequently. Our reinforcers are completely different.

But what about the very next day? Maybe I’m reading my new copy of JABA and you come inside and tell me, “I drove through the mud. My car needs another wash.” I’d probably point to the hose and tell you to do it yourself. Why? I was reinforced for doing it yesterday- was it not really reinforcement? Reinforcement is supposed to increase future instances of that behavior, but now, I’m not washing the car. Was it really punishment? To understand what’s happening here you have to understand the concepts of Establishing Operations (EO) and Abolishing Operations (AO).

Establishing operations and abolishing operations are anything that temporarily changes the value of a reinforcer, either for better or for worse. And establishing operation will momentarily increase the effectiveness of a reinforcer, while an abolishing operation will decrease the effectiveness. Establishing operations are sometimes knows as motivating operations (MOs), because at the time, you are motivated to gain access to that reinforcers. You gave me a copy of JABA yesterday, so I’m not motivated to earn another one. I’m currently satiated on it. Plus, I already have it. I don’t need two of the same issue. I probably haven’t even finished reading the one that you gave me yesterday.


What are the odds right now of you getting up from your computer and getting a banana? That would, of course, depend on several things. Are you hungry? Hunger is an establishing operation. It will increase the value of the banana (assuming you like bananas) or anything you like to eat. But what if you just ate a huge feast and you’re so full you have to unbutton your pants to be comfortable. Chances are, you’re not going to want anything edible I have to offer you, even if it’s your favorite thing. You’re full, you’re satiated on food, and this is an abolishing operation. Your favorite food will still be a reinforcer, just not right now. Maybe later, when you’re hungry, you’ll be more willing to do things to get food. I’m certainly not going to make myself a grilled cheese if I’ve just eaten a huge meal. But if I’m hungry- grilled cheese making behavior is pretty likely (as I do like a good grilled cheese).


Back to the banana, though. You’re sitting at your computer, next to me, and there’s a banana in the kitchen. You’re not hungry, or maybe you don’t like bananas, so the likelihood of you getting up to get a banana is pretty much zero. What if I offered you 10€ to get me a banana? You might be a little more likely to get that banana. I’ve put an Establishing Operation on the behavior of getting a banana, because now the reinforcer value has changed- it went from not very reinforcing (eating a banana when you’re not hungry) to much more reinforcing (money!).

For a banana?

For a banana?

Well, maybe you’re in the U.S. and my 10€ is worthless to you. You’d have to take it to the bank, get it exchanged for US dollars, loose money on the exchange rate, pay the bank for a foreign currency exchange fee, and in the end, you may end up with only $5. The amount of work to make that 10€ meaningful to you is not enough to get you to bring me the banana. All that effort is an abolishing operation. You have to get me a banana AND go through this whole bank process to get your reinforcement? Forget it! Unless you want the 10€ for posterity (cool! A euro bill!), or you’re really broke and that $5 end result is worth it to you. Being broke would be an establishing operation.

But what if I offered you 1000€? Suddenly the effort of getting that banana and the whole rigmarole with the bank might be worth it.

Now THAT'S more like it!

Now THAT’S more like it!

When you take your dog to training class, do you feed them breakfast or dinner right before? Probably not. You want your dog to be hungry and willing to work for training treats. If they work for a ball or toy, do you let them play with that toy all they want before training time? No, you want that establishing operation. You want the dog to de deprived of the reinforcer. Maybe you own a dog who would eat themselves to death (my lab, Dierdre!). Feeding them dinner beforehand would not be an abolishing operation. They’ll still work for food even when they’re full (well, Dierdre believes she’s never really full, she has a black hole in place of her stomach). Like reinforcement and punishment, establishing operations and abolishing operations will be different for each person.

Maybe you come in the next day with that dirty car, and you have the latest copy of JABA that just came out that morning. An establishing operation again- I’ll probably get up and wash your dirty car even though I just did it yesterday, because the new edition of the journal is out and now I want that. I’m motivated to get it. The release of a new issue is an establishing operation- the value of the new edition skyrockets for me.

Currently, I go to work to make money. Sure, I enjoy my job; luckily I didn’t spend 10 years in college to do something I hate. But I primarily do it to make money. My job has a high amount of effort required; working with severely mentally handicapped individuals is not easy, so my motivation to continue to go is to keep getting a paycheck. If I won the lottery tomorrow and suddenly had 10 million euro in my bank account, my going to work behavior would decrease. It may even cease, at least for a little while. Winning the lottery would change my motivation to earn a paycheck, as I’m already satiated on money. I have enough (heck, you don’t even have to pay taxes on lottery winning in Germany, so I’d be set!). Winning the lottery would be an abolishing operation. I’d probably take a year or two off and go travel the world. Shoot, I may not come back! (Just kidding, it’s hard to travel with three dogs, so I wouldn’t go far for very long at a time.) But eventually I may get bored and decide to return to work. My motivation at that point would be different- I’d be going to escape being bored, not to gain access to a paycheck (remember our functions?). Plus I enjoy behavior, so going back to being a practicing behavior analyst would, in itself, be motivating for me.

In order to make the most effective training program for your dog, no matter if you’re training for competition, work, or a good family companion, make sure you know how these affect the individual you are working with to keep your reinforcers highly motivating at the time you’re using them!

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  1. Pingback: Meanwhile, on the internet (#7) – Dog Love

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