Motivating operations are environmental variables that either increase or decrease the value of a stimulus, object, or event as reinforcement.
If the motivating operation increases the value of something, then this is part of establishing a behavior pattern or new skill. If it decreases the value of something, then it will serve to decrease a behavior.
Let’s take a common example in our everyday lives. When we are thirsty, we really want something to drink. Our thirst is an establishing operation and makes the value of a beverage much higher and the drink is a valuable reinforcer given the situation (thirst). Because we value the beverage more, we are willing to do more to get it so much so that the behaviors we have to do to get a drink will be strengthened after I receive the drink. This increases the likelihood that I will do those behaviors in the future. This concept is great for making an already desirable item more powerful and can be used as motivation in non-preferred situations or activities.
Learning how to adjust the environment to bring about these desired changes in behavior is a helpful tool to have in your “toolbox”. First, it is important to identify the individual’s preferred reinforcers (remember everyone’s reinforcers are not the same). Once those are identified, review how often the person gets those items because the more they get them, the less likely they are to work for them. When an individual has constant access to an item, s/he is less likely or unmotivated to work for it – This is known as satiation. For example, if the individual enjoys playing on a tablet device, but they have played on it for 6 hours that day, they will not be motivated to engage in new learning or a non-preferred task in order to gain access to this specific item. Limiting access to a reinforcer creates a state of deprivation or a situation in which the person has not been able to play with the tablet and is motivated to do the requested behaviors to work for it.
Motivating operations help provide natural opportunities to learn different skills. For example, if a child is hungry or thirsty, there is high motivation for food or drinks and you can use this opportunity to teach functional communication like 1–word requests, sign language or picture exchange in order to gain access to the food or drink.
Here are some more examples of motivating operations:
When teaching potty training, a way to manipulate motivating operations is fluid loading, which is providing free, unlimited access to highly preferred fluids. This increases the likelihood they will need to urinate and an opportunity to teach and reinforce the potty training behaviors.
If you are working with a child who is refusing to sit down to work on an activity, you can adjust the sequence of activities such that the child goes outside and plays, runs and jumps around which burns some physical energy. Then you can take the child back inside and the likelihood that they will want to sit down has likely increased. By creating this sequence of events, the likelihood of the child sitting and potentially working for a drink increases and creates a routine for compliance behaviors.
— Daniel Enriquez, BCBA