It is well known by those who study human behavior that motivation is essential when a person seeks to achieve a goal or a reinforcement. Two of the theories that attempt to explain this fact are the associative structure of instrumental conditioning and behavioral regulation.

Throughout this article we will see the behavioral regulation theories , explain what their precedents were and how this model is applied in behavior modification techniques.

What is behavioral regulation?

Compared to structural conditioning which focuses on individual responses, their motivational background and their specific consequences, behavioural regulation encompasses a wider context.

In behavioural regulation , all the behavioural options that an organism has at its disposal when it comes to achieving something that will serve as a reinforcement. This is a much more practical perspective that focuses on how the conditions of the situation or context limit or influence the person’s behaviour.

Precedents in Psychology and Education

As commented before in the instrumental conditioning the reinforcers were considered as special stimuli that provoked a situation of satisfaction , and therefore strengthened the instrumental behaviour.

However, not all the theorists agreed completely with these ideas, so alternatives such as the theory of consumer response, the Premack principle or the hypothesis of response deprivation began to emerge. These would establish the basis of behavioural regulation.

1. Consumer response theory

This theory developed by Sheffield and his collaborators was the first to question the rules of instrumental conditioning .

According to Sheffield, there are a number of species-specific behaviors that are self-reinforcing. Examples of these behaviors would be eating and drinking habits. The theory of the consumer response hypothesizes that these behaviors constitute a self-reinforcing response.

The revolutionary idea of this theory is to investigate the types of reinforcing responses rather than reinforcing stimuli.

2. Premack principle

The ideas reflected in Premack’s principle represented a progress in existing thinking about reinforcement mechanisms. According to this principle, the reinforcers that should be given importance were the responses rather than the stimuli.

Also known as the Differential Probability Principle, it theorizes that when there is a link between two stimuli (responses), the situation that has a higher probability of occurring will positively reinforce the other with less chance of occurrence .

Premack and his team argued that a reinforcing response can be any behavior or activity that the subject perceives as positive. In this way, a behaviour that is valued as positive or pleasant and that is performed on a regular basis will increase the chances that another, less attractive behaviour will be carried out; but for this both have to be presented in a contingent manner .

For example, eating would be a positive, habitual and species-specific reinforcement response. However, cooking does not have to be. However, if the person wants to get the reinforcement, in this case feeding, he or she will have to cook even if this is not so attractive to him or her. Therefore the pleasant reinforcing response will also promote the other response.

3. Deprivation of response hypothesis

According to the hypothesis of response deprivation proposed by Timberlake and Allison, when the reinforcing response is restricted this response is being promoted in an instrumental way .

In other words, what is important is not with what proportion or probability one behavior is executed and not another, but the mere fact of prohibiting the reinforcing behavior will motivate the person to want to perform it.

This hypothesis can be reflected in an infinite number of contexts or situations in which the mere fact that we are forbidden to do something will work as a motivator to make us want to do it more.

This theory is totally opposed to that of Premack, since it defends that the deprivation of the reinforcing response has a greater power to encourage instrumental behavior than the differential probability of carrying out one response or another.

Behavioral regulation and behavioral delight point

The idea of regulation is closely linked to the notion of balance or homeostasis. This means that if people have a distribution of their activities that they find satisfactory they will try to maintain it at all costs. In this way, the moment something or someone interferes with that balance, the behaviour will have to change to get back to normal.

Therefore, the point of behavioral delight is the person’s preferred distribution of responses or behaviors . This distribution can be reflected in the number of times or the amount of time spent on an activity or behaviour.

In this case we can imagine a child who likes playing video games more than studying, one activity is enjoyable and the other is done out of obligation. Consequently, the distribution of this child’s behavior will be playing 60 minutes and studying 30 minutes. This would be his point of delight.

However, although this distribution is pleasant for the person, it does not always have to be the healthiest or most appropriate. According to behavioral regulation theories, in order to modify negative behavior it is necessary to impose an instrumental contingency.

Imposition of a behavioral contingency

The aim of the technique of imposing an instrumental contingency is to rectify or reform the distribution of the person’s behaviour by making it move away from the point of delight . To do so, the therapist will resort to a series of reinforcements and behaviour-modifying punishments.

If we return to the previous case, by imposing an instrumental contingency, the therapist will force the child to play the same amount of time that the child spends studying . Therefore, if the child wants to play for 60 minutes he will have to study the same amount of time; or on the contrary, if he only wants to study 30 minutes this will be the amount of time he will have to play.

The result will be a redistribution of behavior that will remain between one option and the other, increasing the amount of desired behavior but not causing the person to deviate too much from his or her point of delight.

The main contributions

The currents that bet on behavioral regulation as a way to increase motivation left numerous contributions and new points of view about behavior modification. These include:

  • Paradigm change in the conception of reinforcers , which go from being specific stimuli to specific responses.
  • Concept of distribution of responses or behaviors as a method to increase instrumental behaviors.
  • The distinction between booster and instrumental responses is eliminated . They are only distinguished within the therapeutic intervention.
  • The notion of behavioral regulation develops the idea that people respond or engage in behavior with the intention of maximizing their benefits.