Love, Psychologically


There are some things that are just fun to study because of their vast importance. Love is one of them. There are as many theories about love as there are grains of sand on a shore, but if you’re a scientist, especially a behavioral scientist; you want to focus on the aspects that can be studied; things that we can at least see, hear, or touch, so that we can come to some kind of agreement on their existence. So it might not be so much an invisible force called “Love” we’re using terminology on, but rather “loving”. The romantic relationship, the affiliation between people; what they do, how they do it, how it maintains. What makes loving, and being loved, a unique experience and one that people tend to pursue for years (while others, sometimes, much shorter).

As humans in general, we cannot see any invisible qualia of romantic “love”, but we can see how people respond to one another, how they draw selective attention, how that attention strengthens and becomes a bond, and how they share in that exchange of the affiliation, that relationship. If we think about “love” as magical, and inexplicable, then that makes it very hard to study, doesn’t it? But if we look at what it “looks like”, what people “do” or “exhibit”, then we get somewhere. Love. It happens so much that there surely have to be some common features, and since we are all human, after all, we must share aspects and patterns that over-arch large groups of us. Even entire populations must share some feature, some pattern, that we can call “loving”. How else would there be so much advice out there?

There has been psychological research on this. An abundance of it. Dorothy Tennov’s work on “Love and Limerence”, Keith Davis’ “Relationship Rating”, Beverly Fehr’s “Love and Commitment”, and even Marshall Dermer’s behavioral account of “Romantic Loving”. There are just a few (there are thousands) of many, that will be used to explore some theoretical frameworks for what makes a working relationship work, what the features are, and the appeal of specific patterns of behavior that make up a “loving” affiliation.

We have to assume a little with this. Everyone is different, so specifics are where we would lose this account’s effectiveness of loving. If we assume everyone likes brightly colored eyes, when in fact many find darker color eyes reinforcing (rewarding/appealing), then we’ve assumed too much. If we, on the other hand, assume that every human on earth is subjectively polyamorous, and can come to no conclusions, then we assume too little. We have to find a middle ground that might not explain everything but explains enough.  We want an account of “loving” that is stable, desired, and explains a fully functioning relationship.


What is Love & Loving? (and what’s not?)

Let’s let out some ground rules for our interpretation of this framework. To best interpret this research, and create something that we can actually put into real testable practice, we need to make sure we keep it in the realm of reality. So when we talk about “Love” going forward, we are going to talk about events/behaviors from ourselves and others. Some may be private (inside our head), some may be public (an action we engage in with another person), but all of these things can be more or less concretely defined. Let’s call the process of experiencing and doing these things “loving”. You can engage in love with another person, and they can engage in loving events/behaviors with you. Sounds fun. Now that we have an operational definition to work with; what might that exclude? Let’s talk about Limerence.

Dorothy Tennov developed this concept in 1979 to explain the experience of being “head over heels” with someone. It’s intense. It’s all consuming. Even a little obsessive. As she, and another researcher Lynn Willmott, describe it;  “an involuntary potentially inspiring state of adoration and attachment to a limerent object (the target of infatuation) involving intrusive and obsessive thoughts, feelings and behaviors from euphoria to despair, contingent on perceived emotional reciprocation”.  Let’s break this down and make it a little more “behavioral”. So limerence, is like love, except people exhibit:

  • Intrusive and obsessive thoughts about the person (Private Events).
  • Attachment to a Limerent Object (the person they are obsessed with). Thoughts and interactions with this individual become highly reinforcing, and behaviors seeking them are thus highly reinforced.
  • Reciprocity determines “euphoria” or “despair”. If that Limerent Object ( the person who is being obsessed over) gives a specific type of perceived behavior; it can either be incredibly reinforcing (rewarding), or incredibly aversive. These are two very extreme states.

According to Tennov, this is the type of “loving” we would hope to turn into a relationship or affiliation of “loving” behaviors between two people, but it could not maintain itself as it is. It’s not stable. It’s intense, a flash, but is based on perceptions and obsession (highly repeated private events or “thoughts” about that person). These behaviors do not operate in a healthy way to create or build a relationship. They seem to seek out the other person intensely, but you might notice, they do not seem to hold that person in a regard where a relationship could flourish. This type of limerence is what Tennov found to be dangerous.

It’s not a feeling so much as it is a pattern, and she found 3 ways that it subsides.

Consummation, where the feelings are reciprocated, and ideally, the limerence becomes a more healthy form of attachment. This is the best case scenario.

Starvation, or as behaviorists call it “Extinction”, where the behaviors of obsession/seeking are not reinforced; the other person doesn’t respond. The seeker gets nothing of what they were seeking, so the seeking undergoes behavioral extinction because it no longer serves its function. This is a painful process, the “despair” Tennov spoke of.

Then there’s Transference where the limerence stays, but the limerent object changes. The person they are focusing on gets replaced with another person, and the cycle of intense emotion, intrusive thoughts, etc continues in another direction. In behavioral terms, the response class remains, but the target of those behaviors changes. This type of seeking also seems incredibly unhealthy and hard to sustain a balanced life around.

According to our original operational definition of “loving”, this limerence is not going to work, conventionally. We cannot apply these patterns to a broad population and hope for good outcomes. This is where we need to turn to Keith Davis’ research and Marshall Dermer’s behavioral account of loving to help us out. These researchers took features of “loving” relationships and broke them down into components that most people tend to exhibit. On top of that, they also came up with strategies that might maintain them. Having a loving relationship is good, but maintaining it is also something worth looking into. You might have seen the word reinforcer or reinforcing used a few times. Humans rely on patterns. It’s a big part of how we operate. Think of reinforcers as “things” that keep a pattern going, and reinforcement as the process of strengthening that pattern. Let’s talk “loving” reinforcement and these components of caring.


Features of “Loving” and Reinforcing (Maintaining) Them

They (Davis, Todd, as well as Dermer) break down “loving” into three classes of features; Caring, Passion, and Friendship. These are behaviors and traits exhibited in regular patterns and are consistent. They are a common part of the functioning relationship or affiliation with one another. I’ll present a few words from the researchers, and follow up with some actual behaviors that represent examples that a person might engage in.

Features of Caring:

  1. The person “gives their utmost” to the other. Behaviorally speaking, we mean that the effort put in to engage with the other person, and acting for their benefit, is high. Some might say foregoing one’s own reinforcers (rewards) so that the other are reinforced (rewarded).  Here are some examples.
      • Engaging regularly.
      • Being present and focused during engaging.
      • Potentially putting maximum effort for that individual.
      • Potentially sacrificing their own rewarding opportunities, for the sake of the opportunities of the other.


  2. The person “championing and advocating” for the other. This is not a quid pro quo situation based on measuring out little bits of effort and support, this is committing to the betterment of that person. It involves social reinforcement.
      • Socially praising that person for actions.
      • Socially praising and supporting efforts of that person.
      • Putting forward resources and social effort for the successes, or approximate successes of that other person.


Features of Passion:

  1. “Fascinating” about the other. By fascinating, they mean engaging in thinking or imagining about the other person even when that person is absent. (Think of this as a tempered version of the limerence we spoke about above). These events are what behavioral psychologists call “private events”. They are not observable to anyone else but the respondent.
      • Thinking about the other person regularly.
      • Imagining the other person regularly.


  2. Mutual “desiring and experiencing sexual intimacy”. This one is the more obvious “passion” feature. These are both overt and covert (private) behaviors, but most importantly, this behavior is shared between both simultaneously. The reinforcement (rewarding) from one to another is mutual or shared.
      • Engaging and reinforcing “desiring” behaviors between one another.
      • Engaging and reinforcing “sexual intimacy” behaviors between one another.


  3. “Desiring mutual exclusivity” with the other person. This is where behaviors are used specifically with one another. One person presents specific, and unique, behavior towards the other and do not engage in these specific behaviors broadly with others outside of the relationship.
      • Unique thoughts or feelings about the other.
      • Unique ways of speaking or responding to one another.
      • Unique patterns of daily behavior with one another.


Features of Friendship:

  1. “Enjoying one’s company”. At a very basic level, being around someone should be enjoyable if a relationship is to maintain. This enjoyment could come from;
      • Enjoyment gained from a shared history and specific important events.
      • Enjoyment gained from a conditioning, shared desirable features that have become attributed to one another.
      • Enjoying the repertoire of social behaviors, or activities that person engages in regularly.


  2. “Being able to confide” in the individual. Sharing information that has the risk of being exploited, or showing vulnerability. Being able to express specific thoughts or intents with the other person and not expecting a reprisal or betrayal on the part of the other.
      • Sharing secrets, hopes, dreams, aspirations that represent vulnerability.
      • Being able to speak frankly and honestly on topics.


  3. “Behaving spontaneously”. With strangers, predictability is the best bet at cooperation and interaction so that no one is put off. This feature represents a tolerance for spontaneity and surprise where there is the potential for the unexpected, and in a sense, a chance of the unknown or risk.
      • Engaging in behaviors that are novel towards the other, with the other in mind.
      • Engaging in novel activities with the other.


  4. “Understanding” the other. The verbal behavior (spoken words) make sense to the other and are not misinterpreted.
      • Shared meanings of certain histories or features.
      • A shared understanding of tone of voice.
      • A shared understanding of facial expressions or other predictors others might not pick up on.


  5. “Respecting the other”. This is where the judgment, intents, and meaning of the other person are held in a regard that is not distrustful, or disingenuous.
      • Allowing one person to engage in an activity and having faith in that other person’s ability.
      • Engaging socially in terms that promote dignity and value the other.



Reinforcing the Relationship

These are a lot to juggle at one time. If all of these features are important for both people to engage in while in that state of loving, and the relationship is to maintain for long periods, there must be some way for people to have the time and ability to do so, right? This is where we discuss how and when we can use those features above as practical behaviors, and making those practical behaviors reinforcers (rewards). Reinforcers aren’t just prizes or tangible objects; they can be ANY behavior or change in a stimulus that strengthens another behavior. It’s not just one direction either. One person can reinforce another’s behavior, and have that person reinforce theirs right back. It becomes a cycle, it becomes an interaction where both sides are engaging in these loving features, those romantic behaviors, and being strengthened by one another’s. Here are some suggestions from the research.

Reinforcing a Relationship with Generic and Abundant Reinforcers-

Don’t let the words generic scare you off. This does not mean boring or unoriginal. This means using the common stuff and using it often to strengthen the romantic/loving behaviors in the other person. These are things you have a lot of, or behaviors that are low cost to you, that you can use repeatedly and consistently. This sort of behavioral framework is good for maintaining a relationship.

Given the opportunity, how many Friendship, Caring, and Passion behaviors could you exhibit abundantly an hour? How about per day? Or month? Try looking at these.

  • Smiling
  • Laughing
  • Engaging in a positive tone.
  • Taking the time to understand a point of view.
  • Physical closeness.
  • “Checking in”- frequent social interaction.

Just to name a few. These are easy, quick, require little effort, and can maintain a relationship, or series of interactions through those quick and abundant psychological reinforcement effects. Remember; A big surprise is great, but if you get absolutely nothing from the individual, not a smile, not a word, in between, big surprises aren’t strong enough. The relationship gets frayed, thin. That’s why you use “generic and abundant” social reinforcers from your assumedly impressive romantic repertoire of skills.

Reinforcing a Relationship with Scarce and Idiosyncratic Reinforcers

Now the big surprises come in. These can’t maintain a long and complex relationship by themselves. They, by definition, are scarce, therefore very interesting. These are things you can not provide to another person very often, and they are varied enough that the other person probably would not be able to expect them. These are the high shock-value interactions or rewards, the things that provide a revitalization.  Remember the spontaneity feature? This is where it comes in. These come in when the generic and abundant reinforcers lose efficacy. Sometimes when a thing is too common, people adapt, so you need to throw a little “strange” out there to mix up the predictable delivery of these romantic reinforcers. You can’t expect the scarce big reinforcers to maintain a relationship, but without them, the generic and abundant undergo habituation. Sometimes when something is too predictable and common it loses its reinforcing features. You need to change it up. The mixture of both is where the long-term maintaining of romantic behaviors on both sides meets a good equilibrium.

What about these? Are there any scarce or idiosyncratic reinforcers you could think up from the Caring, Friendship and Passion categories? Can you think of a few specific reinforcers you enjoy? Can you think of a few specific ones that another person might? Try them out and see if they work, or engage in some confiding features to request them. You might just learn something!

Comments? Questions? Leave them below!


  1. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.
  2. Willmott, L., & Bentley, E. (2014). Love and limerence: harness the limbic brain. United States: Lathbury House Limited.
  3. Tennov, D. (1999). Love and limerence the experience of being in love. Lanham, MD: Scarborough House.
  4. Davis, K. E. (1999). What Attachment Styles and Love Styles Add to the Understanding of Relationship Commitment and Stability. Handbook of Interpersonal Commitment and Relationship Stability, 221-237. doi:10.1007/978-1-4615-4773-0_13
  5. Davis, K. E., & Todd, M. J. (1982). Friendship and love relationships. In K. E. Davis, and T. O. Mitchell (Eds.), Advances in descriptive psychology (Vol. 2, p. 79-112)
  6. Dermer, M. L. (2006). Towards understanding the meaning of affectionate verbal behavior; towards creating romantic loving. The Behavior Analyst Today, 7(4), 452-480.


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“Natural Selection” and Human Behavior


Let’s talk about evolution. Or better yet, let’s talk about human behavior, and how our understanding of it was influenced by evolutionary theory. For context, we will want to mention B.F Skinner, a researcher at Harvard in the 1950’s, who had far reaching impacts in the field of psychology, and an emerging practice of it called behaviorism, especially in its terminology and future usage. Most of his work is still held in great regard today, and although not taken as holy writ, has been the foundation of future research and adaptations of the original work. Skinner viewed behavior in a novel way, one influenced by Darwin’s evolutionary theory.

“Reflexes are intimately concerned with the well-being of the organism. Reflex behavior which involves the external environment is important in the same way. If a dog’s foot is injured when it steps on a sharp object, it is important that the leg should be flexed rapidly so that the foot is withdrawn… Such biological advantages “explain” reflexes in an evolutionary sense: individuals who are most likely to behave in these ways are presumably most likely to survive and pass on the adaptive characteristics to their offspring.” (Skinner, 1953).

His work on conditioning was different than that of Ivan Pavlov’s. While Pavlov worked with reflexes and stimulus pairing, specifically,  Skinner worked with learned (or operant) behavior and used the philosophical lenses of adaptation to do so.

“The process of conditioning also has a survival value. Since the environment changes from generation to generation, particularly the external rather than the internal, appropriate reflex responses cannot always develop as inherited mechanisms… Since nature cannot foresee, so to speak, that an object with a particular appearance will be edible, the evolutionary process can only provide a mechanism by which the individual will acquire responses to particular features of a given environment after they have been encountered. Where inherited behavior leaves off, the inherited modifiability of the process of conditioning takes over.” (Skinner, 1953).


Selection by Consequences

In Skinner’s theoretical framework for the analysis of behavior, he sets reflexes apart from behaviors omitted as a modifiable response to reoccurring conditions. Operant behavior that had been altered in some way by past consequences. Or, in layman’s terms; experience.

A behavior which occurs following an event with similar conditions to one experienced before, would either have taken on adaptive features to better access/avoid that stimulus, or, if the original behavior failed, would not be likely to omit again in those similar conditions. This is the foundation of behavioral learning theory, and what Skinner called “selection by consequences”.  This form of selection focuses on the consequences of their behavior in order to predict and describe the rate by which they occur in the future. Behaviors, in this sense, can either be strengthened or weakened via selection. We can see this in some of the terminology still used in behavioral science today:

Reinforcement- Responses from the environment that increase the probability of a behavior being repeated. (ie. When a behavior is “rewarded”, it happens more often).

Punishment- Responses from the environment that decrease the likelihood of a behavior being repeated (ie. When a behavior is “punished”, it happens less often).

Extinction- When a conditioned stimulus is no longer paired with an unconditioned stimulus. Or, if the learned (operant) behavior is no longer reinforced; leading to a decrease in future usage of that behavior. (ie. When there is no more “reward”, the behavior has no purpose to reoccur).


In each of these terms above we can see the impact of environmental conditions, and the usefulness of behavior, to describe and predict how it is used, and why. This had vast philosophical repercussions for psychology at the time. Viewing learning and experience in an evolutionary sense had wide reaching advantages in the field of psychology. During this period (1950’s), psychoanalysis was still the mainstay of many professionals, but had glaring weaknesses in treating habitual disorders, or even features within disorders. The Freudian “talking-cure” was adept at having individuals speak about their internal events, their past, and conceptualizing the Id, Ego, and Superego as explanatory factors for their behaviors and interpretations on their dreams and thoughts; but there was no direct observable translation to healthy action following this treatment. It also gave many professionals with similar training, wild variation in interpreting.



The Unconscious Mind vs. Selection By Consequences

One psychoanalyst might attribute excessive smoking to a childhood event, while another might attribute it to a symbol of the cigarette/flame itself. The explanation did not come from the event, or any clue from the environment around the individual; it was all estimation of events that could not be seen. When the past was used as a descriptor, it was often speaking of formative childhood and adolescent experiences, not the direct past or future. In a strict behavioral sense; these are explanatory fictions. Circular definitions that cannot be proven or disproven.

Comparing this to Skinner’s fledgling analysis of behavior, you can see the drastic differences in a hypothetical example of cigarette smoking:

Freudian- Psychoanalytic Interpretation (“The Unconscious Mind”) The unconscious mind acts as a repository, a cauldron, of primitive wishes and impulses… The making of a fire and everything connected therewith is filled through and through with sex symbolism. (Freud,  A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis.  1935)
Skinnerian- Behavior Analytic Interpretation (“Selection by Consequences”) The first time a cigarette was lit and smoked, that behavior was reinforced by the consequence (reinforcement). The probability of future smoking behavior was increased by which ever stimulus acted as a reinforcer (taste, chemical interaction, social, etc).


You will notice under the behavior analytic interpretation; the behavior is adaptive. If smoking that cigarette was pleasing to the individual, they would seek it more in the future. If it was aversive, they would be more likely to avoid it. It is adaptation within the lifetime of the individual. It requires no intergenerational passing of information or traits. It adapts because it serves a function.

Applications of the classifying of behaviors by function, complex social phenomena, and even verbal behavior itself have been conducted using this evolutionary-minded theory of why behaviors occur, and asking the question “for what reason?”. But this is not limited to direct experience. With this explanation, a behavior would not even need direct influence from a specific condition. This is where “rule-governed” behavior is explained. Let’s take a look at a rule governed behavior that might effect the smoking behavior above:

  • SURGEON GENERAL WARNING: Tobacco Smoke Increases The Risk Of Lung Cancer And Heart Disease, Even In Nonsmokers.

According to Skinner, the “rule” serves as a contingency specifying stimulus. Humans are able to learn from the experiences of others, and can adapt our behavior based on observation and instruction. Those stimuli serve as the consequences that either reinforce, or punish, behavior which in turn effects future probability of those behaviors being omitted.

One could either smoke a cigarette and find it displeasing, or they could be given a warning. Supposing that the cigarette, and the instruction, carried enough punishing value, the smoking behavior would decrease. Both are viable consequence events that can effect rates of future behavior.

This topic focused specifically on changes of behavior of an individual, but can also be used in much broader scope as well (especially with rule-governed behaviors). There is growing interest in the field researching was is called meta-contingencies. This theoretical framework does not exclude “thoughts” either, and labels them as “private events”, behaviors in their own right. While we may not touch on that today, keep these theories in mind. They might be adaptive for you.


Questions? Comments? Leave them below!


  1. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.
  2. Skinner, B. F (1945). The operational analysis of psychological terms. Psychological Review, 270-277.
  3. Skinner, B. (1960). Science and human behavior. New York: Mc Millan Company.
  4. Darwin, C. (1872). The origin of species. New York: D. Appleton.
  5. Freud, S. (1935). A general introduction to psychoanalysis. New York: Washington Square Press.


Image Credits:, Getty Images, North American Energy Advisory (2017)


How the Media uses Motivating Operations on Viewers


Let’s talk about a topic in behavioral science that is often overlooked called Motivating Operations. They happen all the time, and create a need for a behavior to occur which accesses or avoids something. In televised and internet media, organizations use these stimuli to get people to view these programs (and generate ad revenue for the media organization), or become hooked to a continuous chain of watching/viewing/consuming behaviors.

Motivating Operations are useful to this topic because they are a special type of stimuli that momentarily alters the value of the consequences, leading to behaviors seeking those consequences (reinforcers) to increase drastically. In other words, Motivating Operations have a great deal of control over behaviors that seek something out. They are triggers that make seeking out the consequences (in this case, dangerous/fearful or consummatory-related information) much more desirable. Let’s take a moment to break it down and find out how, in this theoretical example.


Value Altering Effects and Behavior Altering Effects

Before we get in too deeply in to how certain media organizations use these Motivating Operations; let’s talk about some of the aspects in play simultaneously that change the viewers/listeners/readers behavior.

Antecedent Stimulus (the Motivating Operation) The  Respondent’s (reader/listener/viewer) Behavior The Consequence

“Are there flammable liquids falling from the sky nearby? Find out in 10 minutes.”



Observing the media for the next 10 minutes, and then some.


The story is eventually delivered to the respondent.


Take this Motivating Operation for example. Note that it serves as an antecedent stimulus, meaning it happens before the behavior we are looking at, and that behavior is likely the behavior they are targeting to take place. This type of antecedent stimulus does not provide the information itself that would satiate the respondent. In fact, it provides a situation where we very much want to see resolution to, and that resolution is promised to us if we continue to watch/listen/read their interim programming (generating them ad money in the process). So before we even get to this behavior, or the consequence of that behavior, we have two things going on with this Motivating Operation that we track in behavioral science and applied behavior analysis;

A Value-Altering Effect: Where that motivating operation establishes a situation where that reinforcer we are looking at becomes extremely valuable to us. In our example, flammable liquids in the sky are extremely dangerous, and we have a vested interest in knowing about that danger. The Consequence (ie, the news story) is incredibly valuable to us at this point. They hold information we want.

And a Behavior-Altering Effect: This Motivating Operation is evoking a behavior that the responding has in their repertoire. Assuming they have watched/listened/read this type of media before, they are prime to exhibit that behavior in this instance, cued by this Motivating Operation. Maybe it’s clicking to get to the right part of the story, or the right link. Maybe it’s watching/listening 4 commercials before the story comes on. We (the respondents) demonstrate the exact behavior they are targeting.


Creating the Need and Sating It


The reinforcement, the consequence stimulus, we are looking for may outright be terrifying. They could be telling us about a scenario that would be incredibly dangerous; but we are still very curious, because that information would be able to cue behaviors that would benefit our survival. If, however, this information does not contain pertinent information to us, and we (as the respondents) are not in danger, we then escape a potential aversive stimulus and are reinforced by this as well. In either preparation for survival, or news of our safety, we are for the most part seeking either types of these reinforcers once we are presented with that Motivating Operation stimulus. Uncertainty is a common stimulus that humans are wired to want to avoid.

So now we have a situation following the presentation of their Motivating Operations, which we can see some more fictitious examples below:

  • Tune in at 9 to see why your home might not be safe!
  • 10 security weaknesses the new briefing revealed that will shock you!
  • Dangerous neighbors moving in? What could that mean to your family?
  • You will not believe what Unstable Government Official A said about… Find out more here.
  • 5 ways this Billionaire made more money than you, but first, chicken disease in our cities?

In all of these types of scenarios, they set up the respondents, their viewers/readers to interpret the value of that information in a few ways.

Condition A:  Positive Reinforcement Condition B: Negative Reinforcement Condition C: Punishment
They give you information you can use.

It may even be bad news, but it satisfies that curiosity and may also lead you to engage in additional behaviors to adapt, vent publicly, etc. It may even be a schadenfreude situation where the person is reinforced by another’s misfortune.


The information removes a potential aversive stimulus.

You find out you are safe, or even that the threat or problem is not what you may have thought it was.

You avoid the potential problem. The question they posed created a condition where you may have interpreted threat or danger, and this information has (both created and) removed it.

The information you receive is aversive enough to punish future watching/reading.


In this scenario, you are given something so averse that it does not sate your curiosity, and also decreases the likelihood you will follow through on it again in a similar position.


In Condition A: Both the respondent and the media mrganization get something out of it. Assuming reinforcement took place, the respondent got something they needed from it and the media organization got the revenue from the prolonged engagement in that media. That respondent might even return to watch again some time.

In Condition B: Both the respondent and the media organization get something too. Assuming that reinforcement took place, the respondent “feels safer”, they avoided something they did not want and the media organization got the revenue from the prolonged engagement in that media. This respondent might also return to watch/read again.

In Condition C: The media organization may have misjudged the audience, but they still came out on top. The presentation of the Motivating Operation did in fact create that value-altering and behavior-altering effect, they got their views or their clicks. The respondent, however, was not reinforced. They were put off. They are less likely to engage in viewing behavior. A returning consumer is not as likely.

Not Just Once, but a Chain of Motivating Operations

Let’s think about Condition A and Condition B right now. The situation above looks very linear, but you have to keep in mind that during that behavior period, there could have been many additional stimuli that served as  Motivating Operations or Discriminative Stimuli* for other behaviors that the media organization tacked on. The viewers did their initial clicks, reads, ad listening, what have you. But there is a chance to create more opportunities.

  • Are the flammable chemicals coming for you? Tune in at 10:00… Breaking News! Tsunami’s may be coming to places you never expected!
  • You won’t believe what Government Official A said, but first our commercial break. INCREDIBLE PIZZA FOR LESS!

Once the initial story is over, several other Motivating Operations could have been put in place while the respondent was viewing to create a need to resolve other unknowns, gain access to something new, avoid other potential dangers, and answer new questions which have undergone value-altering effects to that respondent (viewer). By creating scenarios of concurrent Motivating Operations, operating at the same time, it potentially creates an ongoing need to consume this programming on a regular basis and as continuously as the consumer can.


Questions? Comments? Leave them below!


To those that are very interested in the topics of antecedent stimuli, like Motivating Operations, you might have heard of another type called a Discriminative Stimulus (Sd). They share very many attributes, and are sometimes hard to tell apart. For the sake of this example, this particular antecedent stimulus, keep in mind that it’s presentation establishes its (the question it asks) removal as a reinforcer. It is not a cue that provides the viewer with the opportunity to engage in a behavior to get reinforcer; it creates that reinforcer by its own presentation. There may be an additional factor/antecedent event of the scenario that creates a discriminative stimulus for a specific type of responding, but that does not exhibit the whole over-arching phenomenon we are talking about here.


  1. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.
  2. Langthorne, P., & Mcgill, P. (2009). A Tutorial on the Concept of the Motivating Operation and its Importance to Application. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 2(2), 22-31.
  3. Laraway, S., Snycerski, S., Michael, J., & Poling, A. (2003). Motivating operations and terms to describe them: some further refinements. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis
  4. Kim, M. J., Shin, J., Taylor, J. M., Mattek, A. M., Chavez, S. J., & Whalen, P. J. (2017). Intolerance of Uncertainty Predicts Increased Striatal Volume. Emotion.

Photo Credits:

  1. Pexels Stock Photos (Kaboompics // Karolina)