Child Research:

Motivating Operations and Language

Motivating operations affect the momentary effectiveness of rewards (Mayer, Sulzer-Azaroff, & Wallace, 2012). Deprivation, or when you have not had access to rewards for a period of time, can increase the value of that reward and make it a more effective reinforcer. Conversely, satiation, or when you have had free access to reward for a period of time, can decrease the value of that object and makes it less a effective reinforcer. Motivating operations are important when teaching language. One strategy a therapist might use is to deprive a child of rewards they are teaching the child to request (also called manding). This makes requesting more likely and receiving that reward very reinforcing! Research supports this notion (e.g., O’Reilly et al., 2012) and this strategy is frequently used in therapeutic settings.

To date, the effects of motivating operations on other types of language have not been examined. Another form of language is labeling items, which, according to the behavior analytic terminology, is called tacting. An example of tacting is when a child sees a flying plane and then tells the mother “Look! It’s a plane!” The mother provides social praise and makes further comments about the plane. Thus, the reinforcer for tacting is social interaction, typically in the form of social praise. If satiation and deprivation of social praise affect tacting, then this strategy could be incorporated into language training.

We conducted a study to examine the extent to which social interactions with children influence how much children communicate. Specifically, this study aimed to explore basic behavioral principles so that teachers may gain knowledge about how to interact with children in order to improve communication skills in children. The experimenter conducted language training to create a functional class of spoken words with a controlled history of social reinforcement. Following training, a functional analysis demonstrated that the participants used newly acquired words to label (i.e., tact) objects in the environment. Next, pre-session periods of independent and joint play were followed by a progressive ratio assessment where the number of times the participants responded (i.e., labeled objects in the environment) was measured. For two participants, independent play resulted in increased tacting as compared to joint play. The third participant showed no differential responding. These results contradict previous theories which stated that there are no motivating operations associated with verbal behavior maintained by praise, or social generalized reinforcement (Skinner, 1957). From an applied standpoint, these results suggest that antecedent interventions could be employed in language (i.e., tact) training to enhance the effectiveness of training.