The Behavior Analyst

, Volume 14, Issue 2, pp 95–105 | Cite as

Analyzing the Reinforcement Process at the Human Level: Can Application and Behavioristic Interpretation Replace Laboratory Research?

  • Alan Baron
  • Michael Perone
  • Mark Galizio


Critics have questioned the value of human operant conditioning experiments in the study of fundamental processes of reinforcement. Contradictory results from human and animal experiments have been attributed to the complex social and verbal history of the human subject. On these grounds, it has been contended that procedures that mimic those conventionally used with animal subjects represent a “poor analytic preparation” for the explication of reinforcement principles. In defending the use of conventional operant methods for human research, we make three points: (a) Historical variables play a critical role in research on processes of reinforcement, regardless of whether the subjects are humans or animals. (b) Techniques are available for detecting, analyzing, and counteracting such historical and extra-experimental influences; these include long-term observations, steady state designs, and, when variables are not amenable to direct control (e.g., age, gender, species), selection of subjects with common characteristics. (c) Other forms of evidence that might be used to validate conditioning principles—applied behavior analysis and behavioristic interpretation—have inherent limitations and cannot substitute for experimental analysis. We conclude that human operant conditioning experiments are essential for the analysis of the reinforcement process at the human level, but caution that their value depends on the extent to which the traditional methods of the experimental analysis of behavior are properly applied.


human operant research reinforcement principles behavioral history individual differences steady-state methods applied behavior analysis behavioristic interpretation 


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Copyright information

© Association for Behavior Analysis International 1991

Authors and Affiliations

  • Alan Baron
    • 1
  • Michael Perone
    • 2
  • Mark Galizio
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of Wisconsin-MilwaukeeMilwaukeeUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyWest Virginia UniversityMorgantownUSA
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyUniversity of North Carolina at WilmingtonWilmingtonUSA

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