Relative versus absolute reinforcement effects: Implications for preference assessments

Eileen M. Roscoe, Brian A. Iwata, Sung Woo Kahng

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78 Scopus citations


We compared results obtained in two previous studies on reinforcer identification (Fisher et al., 1992; Pace, Ivancic, Edwards, Iwata, & Page, 1985) by combining methodologies from both studies. Eight individuals with mental retardation participated. During Phase 1, two preference assessments were conducted, one in which stimuli were presented singly (SS method) and one in which stimuli were presented in pairs (PS method). Based on these results, two types of stimuli were identified for each participant: High-preference (HP) stimuli were those selected on 75% or more trials during both preference assessments; low-preference (LP) stimuli were those selected on 100% of the SS trials but on 25% or fewer of the PS trials. During Phase 2, the reinforcing effects of HP and LP stimuli were evaluated in reversal designs under two test conditions: concurrent and single schedules of continuous reinforcement. Two response options were available under the concurrent-schedule condition: One response produced access to the HP stimulus; the other produced access to the LP stimulus. Only one response option was available under the single-schedule condition, and that response produced access only to the LP stimulus. Results indicated that 7 of the 8 participants consistently showed preference for the HP stimulus under the concurrent schedule. However, when only the LP stimulus was available during the single-schedule condition, response rates for 6 of the 7 participants were as high as those observed for the HP stimulus during the concurrent-schedule condition (1 participant showed no reinforcement effect). These results indicate that, although the concurrent-schedule procedure is well suited to the assessment of relative reinforcement effects (preference for one reinforcer over another), absolute reinforcement effects associated with a given stimulus may be best examined under single-schedule conditions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)479-493
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of applied behavior analysis
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1999
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Philosophy
  • Applied Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science


  • Concurrent schedules
  • Preference
  • Reinforcer assessment


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