Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

, Volume 9, Issue 4, pp 672–705

Operant variability: Evidence, functions, and theory

Theoretical and Review Articles

DOI: 10.3758/BF03196324

Cite this article as:
Neuringer, A. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review (2002) 9: 672. doi:10.3758/BF03196324


Although responses are sometimes easy to predict, at other times responding seems highly variable, unpredictable, or even random. The inability to predict is generally attributed to ignorance of controlling variables, but this article is a review of research showing that the highest levels of behavioral variability may result from identifiable reinforcers contingent on such variability. That is, variability is an operant. Discriminative stimuli and reinforcers control it, resulting in low or high variability, depending on the contingencies. Schedule-of-reinforcement effects are orderly, and choosing to vary or repeat is lawfully governed by relative reinforcement frequencies. The operant nature of variability has important implications. For example, learning, exploring, creating, and problem solving may partly depend on it. Abnormal levels of variability, including those found in psychopathologies such as autism, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, may be modified through reinforcement. Operant variability may also help to explain some of the unique attributes of voluntary action.

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Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Reed CollegePortland

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