Guest Blog Post by Katherine May, Ed.D., BCBA

Automatic Reinforcement: Auto = Self!

Automatic reinforcement refers to reinforcement that occurs independent of the social mediation of others. Response products that function as automatic reinforcement are often in the form of a naturally produced sensory consequence that, “sound good, looks good, tastes good, smells good, feels good to touch, or the movements itself is good.” (Rincover, 1981; Cooper, Heron, and Heward, 2019). An example would be scratching an insect bite to relieve the itchy sensation you are feeling. With automatic reinforcement, the person is able to reinforce themselves. Some examples are; scratching an itch, cracking knuckles, watching the lights go on and off, eating your favorite cookies, etc.

If another person does not play a role in the function of the behavior then the behavior would be automatically reinforced. However; if another person does play a role in the function of the behavior then this would be considered socially mediated reinforcement. For example if the function of little Kimmy’s behavior is to seek her mothers attention and her mother gives it to her this would be socially-mediated reinforcement but if the function of little Kimmy’s behavior is to get access to a cookie simply because she loves how it tastes and she retrieves it herself, this would be automatic reinforcement.

Another example describing automatic reinforcement would be to turn on the radio yourself as opposed to asking your pal to do it for you. If you had a pal turn the radio on for you this would be socially-mediated positive reinforcement instead of automatic reinforcement.

Practitioners can also determine if a behavior is automatically reinforced when a behavior persists in the absence of any known reinforcer. For example; instances of self-stimulatory behaviors or stereotypy. This is because these behaviors can produce sensory stimuli that function as reinforcement….automatic reinforcement that is!

Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2019). Applied Behavior Analysis (3rd Edition). Hoboken, NJ: Pearson Education.

Vaughan, M. E., & Michael, J. L. (1982). Automatic Reinforcement: An Important but Ignored Concept. Behaviorism, 10(2), 217–227. 

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