• AIM Behavior Services

What is a Motivating Operation?

Updated: Oct 2, 2017

Motivating Operations (MO)

Some days we just really want a piece of cake, and would do anything to get a slice, while other days we could care less about having a sweet treat. Similarly, some days we may want to talk to everyone we see, while other days we just want to stay home and avoid the outside world. In our daily lives, our desire to access certain items and experience certain types of interactions varies depending on a variety of factors. For example, a sandwich is more desirable when we are hungry, and getting gas for the car is more desirable when the tank is empty. The term "motivating operation" describes this phenomenon. An outcome (e.g. getting food/gas/etc.) becomes more or less effective as a reinforcer depending on the circumstances. As a result, our rates of behavior (finding cake or getting gasoline) increase and decrease accordingly.

There are two types of motivating operations: Establishing Operations and Abolishing Operations. It is worth noting that MO and EO are sometimes used interchangeably, which might be okay in a casual conversation with another behaviorist, but will definitely get points marked off in class or on the BCBA certification test.

Establishing Operations (eo)

An establishing operation is a term used to describe when circumstances increase the effectiveness of a reinforcer. For example the gas light turning on in my car is an EO for getting gas. Gasoline's value as a reinforcer increases, which increases the behavior of getting gas.

Abolishing Operations (AO)

An abolishing operation is a term used to describe when circumstances decrease the effectiveness of a reinforcer, thereby decreasing the associated behavior. Eating a large meal would likely be an AO for the behavior of ordering food. Food's value as a reinforcer is decreased resulting in a decrease in behavior.

Example #1:

My gas light turns on while I am driving in the middle of the desert. I am almost out of gas, so I quickly scan the horizon for a gas station, pull off, and get gas.

In this example, the reinforcer is gas. The effectiveness of the reinforcer (gas) was greatly increased (EO) once I knew that my gas tank was running low. Gas would not have been a very good reinforcer if I had a full tank.

Example #2:

I had several meetings this morning and did not have time for breakfast. It is now almost noon, and I still haven't eaten anything today. I leave my meeting, and as I am walking down the street I happen to pass my favorite restaurant. I immediately go into the restaurant and order a large meal.

In this example, the reinforcer is food. The effective of food as a reinforcer is increased because I have not eaten all day and am very hungry.

Some of our favorite examples around the web:

EO: Steven's favorite snack is Skittles. His teacher recognizes this and will sometimes motivate Steven by giving him a Skittle after following a direction. There is an assembly at the end of the day and Steven's teacher needs for him to sit down for the entire event and she plans on rewarding Steven with a Skittle if he does. In order to increase the effectiveness of Skittles, Steven's teacher does not give him the candy all day leading up to the assembly (deprivation state). As a result, Steven is more likely to sit for the entire assembly in order to receive a Skittle because he has been deprived of them all day, hence increasing their effectiveness.
AO: Using the same example, if Steven's teacher were to be constantly rewarding him throughout the day with Skittles they may soon lose their affect as reinforcement (satiation state). Therefore, during the assembly Steven is not as likely to sit the entire time in order to receive the candy because he has had access to them all day. This satiation on Skittles has decreased their effectiveness.


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