Motivating operation

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Motivating operation (MO) is a concept in behaviorism used to explain the momentary effectiveness of consequences in operant conditioning. The term "motivating operation" was developed because MOs account for conditions that either increase or decrease the effectiveness of a consequence as a reinforcer or punisher.[1] Motivating operations affect whether a person wants or does not want a stimulus at a given moment, which helps explain an organism's behavior at that point in time.
Motivating operations can increase or decrease the effectiveness of consequent stimuli. Motivating operations that increase the reinforcing or punishing qualities of a stimulus are termed establishing operations (EO), whereas motivating operations that decrease the reinforcing or punishing qualities of a stimulus are termed abolishing operations (AO). Establishing operations imply an increase in the effectiveness of a consequence as a reinforcer or punisher, whereas abolishing operations imply a decrease in the effectiveness of a given consequence.


It was introduced by Jack Michael in 1982. Different terminology was introduced to further describe the concept in 2003 by Laraway. Laraway suggested making a larger category known as motivating operations. Within this larger category, there are two main groups: establishing operations and abolishing operations. Establishing operations make the reinforcer of the behavior more potent and therefore also makes the behavior more likely. Abolishing operations make the reinforcer less potent which makes the behavior less likely.


The concept is primarily concerned with the motivation of an organism, or what behavior a person will engage in a particular moment. It focuses on the idea that an organism is constantly fluctuating between states of satiation and deprivation of reinforcers. A simple example is created with food, food deprivation makes you "want" food and food satiation makes you "want" food less.

A motivating operation with respect to motivation has two effects: value altering and behavior altering. The value altering effect states that it alters the value of a consequence of behavior by making it more or less reinforcing. The behavior altering effect states that it immediately evokes or suppresses behaviors that have resulted in the consequence linked to the behavior in the past. The motivating operation of deprivation of food in this particular example would establish the stimulus of food as reinforcing and evoke behaviors that in the past have resulted in food, while the motivating operation of being satiated of food abolishes the stimulus of food's reinforcing effect and abates behaviors that in the past have resulted in food.

Note that this concept is different than that of the discriminative stimulus (Sd). The discriminative stimulus is correlated with the differential availability of reinforcement, while the motivating operation is correlated with the differential effectiveness of a reinforcer.[2]

Nine main unconditioned (i.e. not learned) motivating operations, UMOs, have been identified in humans. Deprivation of food, water, sleep, activity, or oxygen; becoming too warm or too cold; and increase of a painful stimulus all function as EOs for related behaviors, and increase the effect of positive or negative reinforcement related to them. Conversely, being satiated with food, water, sleep, activity, oxygen and sex; getting cooler after being too warm or warmer after too cold; and decrease of a painful stimulus all function as AOs for related behavior and reinforcement.[3]

In addition to UMOs, conditioned motivating operations, CMOs, are MOs that result from the learning history of the organism. Three kinds of CMOs have been identified: surrogate CMOs, CMO-S, which function in the same way as the MO it was paired with; reflexive CMOs, CMO-R, which in itself works as reinforcement if it is removed; and transitive CMOs, CMO-T, which make something else effective as reinforcement.[3]


There is some debate as to whether an organism's states of deprivation and satiation are only biological states or if they can be metaphysical states, that is, whether an organism can be deprived or satiated from only unconditioned reinforcers or if they can be deprived and satiated from conditioned reinforcers. Leading to the theory that there are unconditioned motivating operations (UMO) and conditioned motivating operations (CMO).

It has also been used to explain Maslow's[4] hierarchy of needs by describing the lower two levels as UMOs and the upper three levels as CMOs.


  1. ^ Laraway, S., Snycerski, S., Michael, J., & Poling. (2003). Motivating operations and terms to describe them: some further refinements. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. 36. 407-414.
  2. ^ Michael, J. (1982) Distinguishing between discriminative and motivational functions of stimuli. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. 37. 149-155.
  3. ^ a b Cooper, John O (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis. Upper Saddle River, NJ, USA: Pearson Education. ISBN 0-13-129327-3. 
  4. ^ Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, Vol 50(4). 370-396. doi: 10.1037/40054346.