Printer Friendly

Momentum, matching, and meaning: toward a fuller exploitation of operant principles.

The present paper reviews the clinical utility of behavioral momentum and matching theory. It is suggested that these concepts--deriving from operant psychology--outline powerful interventions that are sometimes, incorrectly, thought of as contrary to behaviorism. It is also suggested that these concepts, and the interventions deriving from them, are consistent with DeGrandpre's (2000) notion that behaviorism is a theory of the construction of meaning.


In a paper recently published in the American Psychologist, Richard DeGrandpre (2000) suggested the importance of operant psychology to the development of a science of meaning. He noted that operant psychology holds as its subject matter the nature of how meaning arises from a social and historical context. As illustrated in both its empirical procedures and its philosophical underpinnings, operant psychology champions the notion that meaning does not reside in objects or activities per se, but rather is established through a history of organism-environment interactions. In other words, meaning derives from the "coming together of the self and object at a, developmentally speaking, particular time and place." (p. 723). Behaviorism, according to DeGrandpre, is a theory of development in which a primary unit of analysis is choice. A focus on choice is ultimately an inquiry into how value is attained and maintained, and the conditions under which it is lost.

According to this conceptualization, behaviorism involves recognizing the process whereby organisms generate meaning out of past experience. Of concern is the nature of how organisms distribute their efforts between concurrently available reinforcement contingencies. For example, under what conditions will an individual choose a larger yet delayed reward as opposed to a smaller yet more immediate reward (Green, Fry, & Myerson, 1994; Mischel, Shoda, & Rodriguez, 1989)? From this perspective, the job of the applied behavior analyst is not simply to alter an immediate context such that some behavior or set of behaviors is supported or extinguished. Rather, it is to identify and bring about life experiences that are consistent with maximizing overall value functions (Rachlin, 2000). That is, applied behavior analysis is concerned with helping individuals maximize their rewards over an extended time frame. This is contrasted with being captivated by immediate and ultimately less rewarding value functions. It is the capacity to maximize one's long-term well being that defines "freedom" for the behaviorist.


Operant psychology has been identified by many as having little or no practical significance for clinical psychology (Cullen, 1981). This argument is generally based on the specious conclusion that operant psychology is overly simplistic with respect to its conceptualization of human nature, and that its interventions undermine "free will." Contrary to these arguments, however, operant psychology has generated several principles and paradigms of study that recognize and reflect the complexity of human behavior (c.f., Fantino, 1998). Many of these principles derive from the conceptualization of behavior as choice. They support a broad range of clinical interventions that heretofore have been considered contrary to behavioral theory (Strand, 2000a).

In the remainder of this paper I will identify and discuss two of these principles--behavioral momentum and matching theory. These principles are concerned with the persistence of behavior in the absence of reinforcement and the relativity of reinforcement, respectively. Although they differ with respect to the behavioral processes they refer to, these principles are united in that each presents a challenge to an overly simplistic interpretation of the Law of Effect--one suggesting an absolute relationship between stimuli and behavior. It is this overly simplistic account of behaviorism's most basic statement that triggered pronouncements that behaviorism is irrelevant with respect to generating a theory of the construction of meaning (Bruner, 1990). On the contrary, a behavioral perspective based on behavioral momentum and matching theory represents a powerful framework for clinical interventions deriving from an understanding of how the value of rewards derives from a larger context than immediate response-reinforcer contingencies. Of primary concern here is the way in which an understanding of context empowers a behavioral approach to family therapy.


The basis of matching theory, the matching law, is a mathematical statement specifying the relationship between response rate and reinforcement rate (McDowell, 1982). According to the matching law, rate of response is a function not only of reinforcement obtained for such responding, but also of reinforcement obtained from all other concurrent sources. That is, behavior is recognized to be a choice between responding to one contingency versus responding to competing contingencies (Herrnstein, 1961; 1970). One form of the matching law states that human subjects match their response proportions to reinforcement proportions (Baum, 1973). That is, given independent schedules in which payoff for schedule A is 1/3 and payoff for schedule B is 2/3, choices for schedules A and B will be 1/3 and 2/3, respectively. This patterning of responses exists despite the fact that economic maximization may call for always choosing the more probable outcome (schedule B). Because it explains non-optimal behavior, the matching law has been used as the basis for explanations of addictions and other patterns of behavior referred to as "out of control" and "self destructive" (Rachlin, 2000).

The clinical implication of the matching law is profound if not immediately obvious. It is that behavior may be affected without altering the contingencies that appear from the standpoint of a traditional functional analysis to sustain it. McDowell (1982) cited many studies supporting this conclusion. Each of these studies illustrated that the rate of occurrence of a target behavior or set of behaviors was affected by changes in the reinforcement frequency for some alternative behavior. These changes occurred despite their having been no change to the absolute rate of reinforcement for the target behavior. For example, several studies have reported decreases in disruptive behavior in academic settings as a result of increasing rewards for on-task behavior (e.g., Martens, Lochner, & Kelly, 1992). When utilized to manipulate behavior, such methods are referred to as differential-reinforcement-of-other-behavior (DRO). More recent applications of the DRO principle have illustrated decreases in aggressive and disruptive behavior as a result of increasing rewards for certain forms of communicative behaviors (Carr, 1988; Fisher et al., 1993). These studies derive from and support the notion that, for some individuals, disruptive behavior is maintained by its communicative function. Instruction in the use of highly rewarded alternative communicative methods--referred to as functional communication training (FCT)--has resulted in reductions in a variety of aversive behaviors (Reichle & Wacker, 1993).

Another corollary of the matching law is that the rate of occurrence of some behavior or set of behaviors is sensitive not only to changes in reinforcement for specific alternative behaviors, but also to changes in the rate of reward emanating from the sum of all concurrent sources. Therefore, according to the matching law, behavior rates should be affected by changes in the availability of noncontingent or "free" rewards (McDowell, 1982). This prediction has been supported in several studies. For example, rates of aggressive behavior of a mentally handicapped adult decreased after the availability of noncontingent rewards was increased (McDowell, 1982). More recently, applied studies have investigated noncontingent reinforcement (NCR) with respect to self injury (Fisher, Iwata, & Mazaleski, 1997; Vollmer, Iwata, Zarcone, Smith, & Mazaleski, 1993), aggression (Vollmer, Ringdahl, Roane, & Marcus, 1997), and other severe behavior problems (Hanley, Piazza, & Fisher, 1997; Lalli, Casey, & Kates, 1997). Consistent with the relativity of reinforcement principle highlighted by the matching law, NCR appears to weaken the motivation to emit problem behaviors.

These studies illustrate that response rate is not simply a function of what one obtains for a particular behavior. Rather, response rate is determined by the reward obtained for some behavior relative to the rewards obtained for concurrently available alternatives.

A number of "non-behavioral" interventions for children can be explained with respect to the matching law. For instance, clinicians working from developmental and cognitive traditions frequently laud the importance of increasing "parental responsivity" in order to reduce child behavior problems and to increase cognitive development (Maccoby, 1992). Rarely is this intervention conceptualized in terms of reinforcement. However, according to matching theory, to the extent that parents increase rewards accruing to their children in the form of social attention, rates of negative-attention-seeking behavior will decline.

Not only does an appreciation for matching theory suggest a set of far-ranging clinical interventions. It also has inspired sensitive research methodologies that have identified previously undetected reinforcement effects (Snyder & Patterson, 1995; Strand, Wahler, & Herring, 2001). That is, until recently, studies suggested that individual differences in rates of aggression among children were unrelated to differences in reinforcement for such behavior. These data challenged the validity of reinforcement as a useful concept for understanding the development of childhood psychiatric disorders such as oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder (Maccoby, 1992; Robinson, 1985). However, Snyder and Patterson (1995) recently published the results of a matching law analysis of social aggression. In their analyses, these researchers attempted to explain differential rates of aggression in terms of relative rather than absolute rates of reinforcement. To do this, they compared the relative rate of reinforcement for aggressive versus non-aggressive behavior for each child--a within-subjects analysis. This is in contrast to previous studies that made comparisons across children regarding rates of reinforcement for aggressive behavior. Results of the within-subjects analysis were consistent with predictions. Children for whom aggressive tactics were effective at terminating the unwanted behavior of others, relative to the effectiveness of non-aggressive tactics, illustrated higher rates of aggression several weeks later than did their peers. Comparisons of absolute rates of reinforcement across children were unrelated to future rates of aggression.

To summarize, matching theory tell us at least two very important things about behavior. First, behavior is effectively construed in terms of choice. Therefore, when attempting to identify reinforcement effects, it must be recognized that behavior is a function of the reinforcement accruing to that behavior, relative to reinforcement accruing to alternative forms of behavior. The crucial comparison is across behaviors, not across individuals. Second, given that behavior is ultimately about making choices, clinical decision-making should focus on a broader context than the relationship between a behavior and its consequences. Rather, behavior is also a function of reinforcements accruing to alternative forms of behavior. The implication of this finding for understanding the Law of Effect was succinctly summarized by Snyder (1995): "Reinforcement does not mechanically increase the 'strength' of a particular response independent of other responses, but it does provide information about the functional or adaptive value of each of the multiple responses that could be made in a particular situation. Responses are selected rather than strengthened." (p. 319).

At least two complementary types of behavioral intervention derive from this notion: a direct reinforcement approach and an indirect reinforcement approach (Strand, 2000b). A direct reinforcement approach has to do with identifying and altering the immediate consequences of a behavior that we want to either increase or decrease. This approach is illustrated by managing the rewards and punishments identified via a traditional functional analysis of behavior. An indirect reinforcement approach, on the other hand, has to do with attempting to alter some behavior without directly altering the rewards and punishments thought to maintain it (Thompson, Fisher, Piazza, & Kuhn, 1998). This approach concerns affecting some behavior by altering the reinforcements accruing to alternative forms of behavior. An example is attempting to reduce rates of child noncompliance by altering the rewards children obtain for social approach behavior (Strand et al., 2001). It is also illustrated by efforts to reduce rates of alcohol consumption by increasing the rewards available for non-alcohol related activities (Carroll, 1996). The indirect reinforcement approach also encompasses efforts to affect behavior by managing the availability of noncontingent or "free" reinforcers (McDowell, 1982).


Matching theory is broadly concerned with response-reinforcer (operant) contingencies. Its primary datum is rate of responding (behavioral velocity). Behavioral momentum, on the other hand, is concerned with stimulus-reinforcer (Pavlovian) contingencies, and its primary datum is response persistence (behavioral mass). That is, while behavioral velocity is determined by the contingencies between responses and reinforcers, response persistence (behavioral mass) is determined by the overall rate of reinforcement (Mace et al., 1990; Nevin, Tota, Toquato, & Shull, 1990).

According to behavioral momentum, to generate a high level of persistence for some desired class of behavior, one should establish a high rate of responding in the presence of a particular stimulus. This is generally accomplished by providing a high rate of reinforcement for that behavior (Mace, et al., 1990). Once established, behavior should persist for a time in the presence of that stimulus, even in the absence of reinforcement (Nevin, 1988).

Because it is concerned with the persistence of behavior, behavioral momentum should naturally be of interest to clinicians. Here I shall discuss behavioral momentum as it relates to: (1) child compliance to instructions, (2) scaffolding in child development, and (3) parental concerns about "spoiling" their children.

Compliance with Instructions

In a now classic study, Mace and colleagues investigated the effectiveness of a technique for increasing compliance to instructions (Mace et al., 1988). They illustrated that the likelihood of a low probability behavior (e.g., "put your lunch box away") could be increased if it was preceded by a high probability behavior (e.g., "give me five!"). They explained this patterning effect in terms of behavioral momentum. That is, compliance for the initial high probability behavior established momentum for the response class, "compliance." Subsequently, the momentum just established affected the likelihood of other behaviors that share membership in this response class.

Debate exists concerning whether the abovementioned technique is consistent with laboratory models of behavioral momentum (Brandon & Houlihan, 1997; Nevin, 1996; Plaud & Gaither, 1996). Nevertheless, it was derived from the theory and has interesting implications for clinical work. In particular, it suggests the importance of the patterning of requests. It is likely that parents could facilitate child compliance by establishing a context that maximizes the likelihood of compliance. One such context is eliciting and rewarding high likelihood behavior before prompting children to engage in low likelihood behavior--as long as both behaviors are members of the same response class. Such procedures have been successfully implemented with children with severe behavior proble ms (Davis et al., 1994; Davis & Reichle, 1996). A potential challenge regarding the usefulness of this technique is the difficulty distressed parents have identifying response class characteristics (Wahler & Dumas, 1989).

Scaffolding and Child Development

Scaffolding refers to a process whereby children are enabled, through adult input, to obtain a higher level of performance than would be possible without it. For instance, with timely input from adults, a child may complete a puzzle that otherwise would be beyond his or her capability. Children whose parents engage in scaffolding behavior have been observed to do better not only on the immediate task at hand, but also in terms of their subsequent social and cognitive activity (Fagot & Gauvain, 1997; Kochanska, 1997; Strand, in press).

According to behavioral momentum, the relationship between scaffolding and generalized improvements in child performance is an outcome of high magnitudes of reinforcement for task persistence. That is, scaffolding involves adults ensuring children experience high rates of reward for engaging in organized and effortful behavior. According to behavioral momentum, high rates of reward increase behavioral persistence. Therefore, children exposed to scaffolding are likely, subsequently, to persist in their effortful behavior in problem-solving settings. One benefit of this persistence, of course, is improved performance resulting from a practice effect. Improved performance frequently results in levels of reward that sustain the activity in question. For instance, the child who persists on difficult reading assignments is more likely to make contact with rewards associated with reading proficiency. Such a child "outgrows" the need for high rates of external reinforcement because skillful reading generates its own enjoyment.

Spoiled Children

Parents of disruptive and aggressive children frequently reveal a reluctance to use positive reinforcement as a means for behavior change. When queried parents sometimes state that offering external rewards is tantamount to bribery, and that while it may work in the short run, it leads ultimately to children who require high rewards for minimal effort. Said differently, over-rewarding leads to "spoiled" children.

Interestingly, behavioral momentum suggests the opposite. Contrary to parental fears, behavior that is highly rewarded is likely to persist when challenged by conditions of reduced reward. Moreover, such behavior is likely to become more effective at generating its own rewards due to practice. This makes it self-sustaining. Therefore, clinicians should attempt to correct the "spoiled children" error, and help parents increase the rewards they bestow on children for desired behaviors.


DeGrandpre (2000) argued that the future success of the behavioral paradigm depends on the willingness of behavior analysts to fully exploit the implications of basic operant principles. In the present paper the principles of behavioral momentum and matching theory have been discussed. They represent the cornerstone for many clinical procedures that go beyond the manipulation of direct reinforcement contingencies. These procedures include the differential-reinforcement-of-other-behavior (DRO) and the use of noncontingent rewards (NCR). Such principles also provide a framework for understanding and affecting the persistence and the generalization of behavior across contexts. Behavioral momentum and matching theory support a molar or contextualist perspective that is ultimately concerned with the construction of meaning.

Study Questions

1. Describe the two forms of the matching law as they are presented in this article.

2. Discuss in detail at least two interventions used to decrease aberrant behavior that are based on the matching law.

3. The author suggests the matching theory tells us two important things about behavior. Summarize these conclusions as they relate to the design of intervention strategies.

4. Explain in terms of behavioral momentum why the occurrence of a low probability behavior might be increased if it were preceded by a high probability behavior. Describe how this intervention strategy is similar to "patterning of requests" to increase compliance.

5. Discuss "scaffolding" as presented in this article. Describe how scaffolding relates to behavioral momentum.


Baum, W. M. (1973). The correlation-based law of effect. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 20, 137-153.

Brandon, P. K., & Houlihan, D. (1997). Applying behavioral theory to practice: An examination of the behavioral momentum metaphor. Behavioral Interventions, 3, 113-131.

Bruner, J. S. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Carr, E. G. (1988). Functional equivalence as a mechanism of response generalization. In R. Horner, R.L. Koegel, & G. Dunlap (Eds.). Generalization and maintenance: Life-style changes in applied settings (pp. 221-241). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Carroll, M. E. (1996). Reducing drug abuse by enriching the environment with alternative nondrug reinforcers. In L. Green & J. Kagel (Eds.). Advances in behavioral economics (Vol. 3, pp. 37-68). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Cullen, C. (1981). The flight to the laboratory. The Behavior Analyst, 4, 81-83.

Davis, C. A., Brady, M. P., Hamilton, R., McEvoy, M. A., & Williams, R. E. (1994). Effects of high-probability requests in the acquisition and generalization of sicoal interaction skills of young children with severe disabilities. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 27, 619-638.

Davis, C. A., & Reichle, J. (1996). Variant and invariant high-probability requests: Increasing appropriate behaviors in children with emotional-behavioral disorders. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 29, 471482.

DeGrandpre, R. J. (2000). A science of meaning: Can behaviorism bring meaning to psychological science? American Psychologist, 55, 721739.

Fagot, B. I., & Gauvain, M. (1997). Mother-child problem solving: Continuity through the early childhood years. Developmental Psychology, 33, 480-488.

Fantino, E. (1998). Behavior analysis and decision making. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 69, 355-364.

Fisher, S. M., Iwata, B. A., & Mazaleski, J. L. (1997). Noncontingent delivery of arbitrary reinforcers as treatment for self-injurious behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 30, 239-249.

Fisher, W., Piazza, C., Cataldo, M., Harrell, R., Jefferson, G. & Connor, R (1993). Functional communication training with and without extinction and punishment. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 26, 23-26.

Green, L., Fry, A. F., & Myerson, J. (1994). Discounting of delayed rewards: A life span comparison. Psychological Science, 5, 33-36.

Hanley, G. P., Piazza, C. C., & Fisher, W. W. (1997). Noncontingent presentation of attention and alternative stimuli in the treatment of attention-maintained destructive behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 30, 229- 237.

Herrnstein, R. J. (1961). Relative and absolute strength of response as a function of frequency of reinforcement. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 4, 267-272.

Herrnstein, R. J. (1970). On the law of effect. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 13, 243-266.

Kochanska, G. (1997). Mutually responsive orientation between mothers and their young children: Implications for early socialization. Child Development, 68, 94-112.

Lalli, J. S., Casey, S. D., & Kates, K. (1997). Noncontingent reinforcement as treatment for severe problem behavior: Some procedureal variations. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 30, 127-137.

Maccoby, E. E. (1992). The role of parents in the socialization of children: An historical overview. Developmental Psychology, 28, 1006-1017.

Mace, F. C., Hock, M. L., Lalli, J. S., West, B. J., Belfiore, P., Pinter, E., & Brown, D. K. (1988). Behavioral momentum in the treatment of noncompliance. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 21, 123-141.

Mace, F. C., Lalli, J. S., Shea, M.C., Lalli, E. P., West, B. J., Roberts, M., & Nevin, J. A. (1990). The momentum of human behavior in a natural setting. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 54, 163-172.

Martens, B. K., Lochner, D. G., & Kelly, S. Q. (1992). The effects of variable-interval reinforcement on academic engagement: A demonstration of matching theory. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 25, 143-151.

McDowell, J. J. (1982). The importance of Herrnstein's mathematical statement of the law of effect for behavior therapy. American Psychologist, 37, 771-779.

Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Rodreguez, M. (1989). Delay of gratification in children. Science, 244, 933-938.

Nevin, J. A. (1988). Behavioral momentum and the partial reinforcement effect. Psychological Bulletin, 103, 44-56.

Nevin, J. A. (1996). The momentum of compliance. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 29, 535-547.

Nevin, J. A., Tota, M. E., Torquato, R. D., & Shull, R. L. (1990). Alterantive reinforcement increases resistance to change: Pavlovian or operant contingencies? Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 53, 359-379.

Plaud, J. J., & Gaither, G. A. (1996). Behavioral momentum: Implications and development from reinforcement theories. Behavior Modification, 20, 183-201.

Rachlin H. (2000). The science of self-control. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Reichle, J., & Wacker, D. P. (Eds.) (1993). Communication and language intervetion series. Vol 3.: Communicative alternatives to challenging behavior. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Robinson, E. (1985). Coercion theory revisited: Toward a new theoretical perspective on the etiology of conduct disorders. Clinical Psychology Review, 5, 1-29.

Snyder, J. J. (1995). Coercion: A two-level theory of antisocial behavior. In W. O'Donohue & L. Krasner (Eds.). Theories of behavior therapy (pp. 313-348). Washington DC: APA.

Snyder, J. J., & Patterson, G. R. (1995). Individual differences in social aggression: A test of a reinforcement model of socialization in the natural environment. Behavior Therapy, 26, 371-391.

Strand, P. S. (in press). Coordination of maternal directives with preschoolers' behavior: Influence of maternal coordination training on dyadic activity and child compliance. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology.

Strand, P. S. (2000a). A modern behavioral perspective on child conduct disorder: Integrating behavioral momentum and matching theory. Clinical Psychology Review, 20, 593-615.

Strand, P. S. (2000b). Responsive parenting and child socialization: Integrating two contexts of family life. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 9, 269-281.

Strand, P. S., Wahler, R. G., & Herring, M. (2001). The impact of behavior- specific and behavior-nonspecific reinforcement on child compliance to mother directives. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 39, 1085-1097.

Thompson, R. H., Fisher, W. W., Piazza, C. C., & Kuh, D. E. (1998). The evaluation and treatment of aggression maintained by attention and automatic reinforcement. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 31, 103-116.

Vollmer, T. R., Iwata, B. A., Zarcone, J. R., Smith, R. G., & Mazaleski, J. L. (1993). The role of attention in the treatment of attention-maintained self-injurious behavior: Noncontingent reinforcement and differential reinforcement of other behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 26, 9-21.

Vollmer, T. R., Ringdahl, J. E., Roane, H. S., & Marcus, B. A. (1997). Negative side effects of noncontigent reinforcement. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 30, 161-164.

Wahler, R. G., & Dumas, J. E. (1989). Attentional problems in dysfunctional mother-child interactions: An interbehavioral approach. Psychological Bulletin, 105, 116-130.

Paul S. Strand

Washington State University

Paul S. Strand, Department of Psychology, Washington State University, 2710 University Drive, Richland, WA 99352. Email:
COPYRIGHT 2001 Behavior Analyst Online
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Strand, Paul S.
Publication:The Behavior Analyst Today
Date:Jun 22, 2001
Previous Article:Toward a science of verbal behavior: progress and challenges.
Next Article:Functional analysis of precurrent contingencies between mands and destructive behavior.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters