How the Media uses Motivating Operations on Viewers

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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

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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!

*Footnote:

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.

References:

  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.com Pexels Stock Photos (Kaboompics // Karolina)

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