Establishing Operation vs. Discriminative Stimulus

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(confusing signs)

Students sometimes ask what the difference between an establishing operation and a discriminative stimulus is.

These are both very important concepts in behavior modification and it is important to fully understand the differences. What might initially be a source of confusion is that both establishing operations and discriminative stimuli are antecedents (A) to a behavior (B). He are some informal definitions of the two.

Establishing operations work by changing the reinforcement properties of a reinforcer. If a reinforcer is made to be more reinforcing, the consequence will be more desirable which should have a greater effect on eliciting the target behavior. Establishing operations for reinforcers make us want something more that we might have.

Discriminative stimuli work by telling us what behaviors will get reinforced or punished. In this way discriminative stimuli control our behavior and tell us what to do or how to act. When we reliably and predictably change our behavior in the presence of a discriminative stimulus we are said to be under stimulus control.

Establishing operation example:
Ads for an iPad make the desire for an iPad even greater. If the target behavior is saving money to buy a new computer, and if the iPad ad is successful in making you want one, then you are more likely to save for the iPad.

A= Needing a new computer
B= Saving money to buy a computer
C= Getting an iPad

The ad is an establishing operation because it makes you want the iPad more than you might have originally - it makes the iPad more desirable - it makes the iPad more reinforcing.

Suppose you work for organization dealing with defiant teens and you want to use reinforcement to increase the frequency of the teens following the rules (target behavior = adhering to rules / compliance). Suppose you try to use ice cream as a reinforcer but that won't work because the teens get ice cream each night so it really isn't reinforcing to get an extra scoop of ice cream. (note that we are making an assumption that ice cream is reinforcing to everyone).

A= Context of a trouble teen confinement center
B= Compliance to rules
C= Ice cream

Keep in mind ice cream is only a reinforcer if under the conditions it increases the frequency of the teens emitting target behavior. Even though ice cream is a consequence, it is not necessarily a reinforcer - we have to wait and see how behaviors change.

If ice cream doesn't work to change the behavior, then we cannot call it a reinforcer.

How can we get the teens to want ice cream enough to emit the target behavior? Can we use an establishing operation to increase the reinforcing properties of ice cream? Sure stop serving it every day!

We can limit the amount of ice cream the teens get. This is referred to as deprivation. Deprivation is an establishing operation. Since deprivation is an establishing operation we can use it to make the ice cream more reinforcing, which should increase compliance.

Discriminative stimulus example:

While establishing operation work on the reinforcer (C), discriminative stimuli work on the behavior (B). Discriminative stimuli tell us when a behavior is going to be reinforced (or punished depending on the situation). Discriminative stimuli act as cues to help us predict if a behavior is going to be reinforced. Discriminative stimuli act as cues to help us know what behavior to emit.

The gas gauge in our car is a discriminative stimulus. The gauge controls our behavior by telling that we better emit a target behavior of buying gas otherwise an unpleasant consequence will result.

The clock on the wall is a discriminative stimulus because it controls our behavior by telling us when to get up, when to go to class, when to eat. Depending on these behaviors there are consequences for doing or not doing the behaviors.

With that in mind, Saturday is a discriminative stimulus. Saturday controls our behavior because we might sleep in, might not go to class, eat breakfast later, start drinking earlier. The discriminative stimulus of knowing it is Saturday tells us that we can emit different behavior then we would on other days. It tells us that there are a different set of consequences that will occur based on our behaviors.

Road signs are discriminative stimuli - they tell you what behaviors to emit. And we typically emit those behaviors because we are aware of the consequences that might result.

While establishing operations work on the consequence and discriminative stimuli work on the behavior, everything is related with the ABCs. Even though establishing operation work on the consequence by making it more reinforcing, behaviors are related to consequences so establishing operations work indirectly on the behavior as well.

On the other hand discriminative stimuli work on the behavior by signaling to us what the right behavior is to emit. The discriminative stimulus tells us what behaviors to do or not to do because we know what the consequence might be. Because everything is related with the ABCs, discriminative stimuli are indirectly related to the consequence.

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1 Comment

I was having troubles understanding establishing operations but this article helped out a lot. I now understand that establishing operations work by changing the reinforcement properties of the reinforcer. Basically we want to make it so that after the experience something that the desire for that object or what ever it is, is more appealing for a person to want and increases the target behavior of getting that thing. Examples of this would be Tv Ads trying to get us to buy their product or food. We may be hungry and now after seeing an ad for buffalo wings we have more of a desire to eat wings now. So we go out and eat them. Establishing operations make us want something more and discriminative stimulus tell us what behaviors will get reinforced or punished. An example of this would be a stop sign, if we stop at the stop sign we are reinforced by abiding by the law but if we blow through it, then we are punished with a ticket. The sign is telling us what to do.

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