Intro to ABA 2: Reinforcement

Why do we do the things we do? : Reinforcement

Now you’ve read Part 1, you will have learned that behaviours occur due to be evoked by an antecedent. The likelihood of a behaviour occurring in the future is impacted by the consequence. If the consequence increases the future probability (the behaviour occurs when the antecedent is present) then this is known as reinforcement.

“Consequences affect only future behavior. Specifically, a behavioral consequence affects the relative frequency with which similar responses will be emitted in the future under similar stimulus conditions”. (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2007, page 34).

Many of the examples used in Part 1 demonstrate reinforcement, so let’s review one again.

ABC 1.3

This consequence could be an example of reinforcement if you say hello to this person again, or if you say “hey” to the next person you see (if you’re very social), or if you say “hey” to the next familiar person. This demonstrates reinforcement if the behaviour continues to be evoked by people, or familiar/specific people in the future. If, however, the person is rude to you, you say “hey” and they tell you to leave them alone or roll their eyes at you, then this may be aversive social interaction and it turn may make you less likely to want to say “hey” to them again, or anyone else you see that day.

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As with evolution, reinforcement keeps behaviours occurring that are beneficial to the person. Being social and part of a group, having shelter and food are crucial to our survival so obtaining these things will reinforce behaviours that enabled us to get these things. Although everyone is individual and specific items or activities that may be reinforcing for one person, may not be reinforcing for another person. Just think of marmite; you either love it or you hate it! If you hate marmite, and someone gives you a sandwich with it inside and you didn’t realise until you bit into it, you would stop eating the sandwich, or even spit the bite out! If you love marmite, you might ask for another sandwich! That’s reinforcement!

“In both operant conditioning and the evolutionary selection of behavioral characteristics, consequences alter future probability. Reflexes and other innate patterns of behavior evolve because they increase the chances of survival of the species.” Skinner, 1953, page 90.

ABC 1.2

Reinforcement can change from moment to moment, or across days or weeks. For instance you may get a craving for a particular food, like chocolate or sweets, and then once you have eaten so much chocolate or sugary treats you may feel sick and the thought of eating any more sweets would be horrible! Any behaviour that is followed by more sweets or chocolates would not be reinforced by the consequence. You may stop any behaviours that resulted in sweets or chocolates, i.e., reaching into the biscuit tin, or opening wrappers.

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When thinking about a persons behaviour, think about the consequence that follows it. If you are perplexed by why you keep doing something or why someone behaves in a certain way, the clue is in the consequence. Does the person get an item, or access to an activity or social interaction when the behave that way? Even if it’s something seemingly unpleasant, like an argument or awful interaction; if the behaviour continues to occur, reinforcement is at play!

“Everyone responds to reinforcement, whether it is the obvious and dramatic applause for a job well done, or imply a paycheck at the end of the work week. We work because we get paid. We are polite to get a smile from a customer. We volunteer because we feel good helping others” (Barbera, 2007, page 58).

Look out for Part 3. Coming soon!

Also, feel free to contact me about any questions or comments, by commenting below, emailing me at, using the contact form, or messaging me via Facebook or twitter.

<— Back to the Intro Series Homepage



Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied Behaviour Analysis (2nd ed.) New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc

Lynch Barbera, M. (2007). The Verbal Behavior Approach: How to teach children with Autism and Related Disorders (Chapter 2). Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: Macmillan.

Future Reading/Listening:

Autism Live, (2014, Nov, 14). The principles of ABA: Reinforcement. Retrieved from



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