Association for Behavior Analysis International

The Association for Behavior Analysis International® (ABAI) is a nonprofit membership organization with the mission to contribute to the well-being of society by developing, enhancing, and supporting the growth and vitality of the science of behavior analysis through research, education, and practice.


34th Annual Convention; Chicago, IL; 2008

Event Details

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Invited Paper Session #90
CE Offered: BACB

What's Voluntary about the Voluntary Operant?

Saturday, May 24, 2008
4:00 PM–4:50 PM
Grand Ballroom
Area: TPC; Domain: Basic Research
CE Instructor: Allen Neuringer, Ph.D.
Chair: Sam Leigland (Gonzaga University)
Dr. Allen Neuringer obtained a B.A. from Columbia University in 1962 and Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1967. He has been teaching at Reed College in Portland, Oregon since 1970 where he is currently MacArthur Professor of Psychology. He has served on numerous NSF graduate fellowship panels and NSF and NIH research study sections. Much of Dr. Neuringer's research has been in collaboration with Reed College undergraduates. His current research is directed at operant variability (for a review, see Neuringer, A. [2004]. Reinforced variability in animals and people. American Psychologist, 59, 891-906). His most recent work describes a theory of volition based upon operant variability (see Neuringer, A., Jensen, G. & Piff, P. [2007]. Stochastic matching and the voluntary nature of choice. JEAB, 88, 1-28). He has also published on self-experimentation, self-control, the "Protestant ethic effect," music discrimination in pigeons, choice under concurrent reinforcement schedules, and percentage reinforcement. His research has been supported by NSF and NIH.

I have long been confused by attempts to distinguish emitted operant responses from elicited Pavlovian reflexes and will describe a new theory based on control by reinforcement over levels of response variability. The theory states that a voluntary response has two defining attributes: functionality and potential unpredictability. A voluntary response is functional in the sense that it can be explained, it happens for a reason, it is goal oriented or, in behavior analytic terms, it is an operant, controlled by reinforcement. A voluntary response must also be at least potentially unpredictable (or free, self-generated, not determined). In other words, voluntary responses can be functionally unpredictable. There are two sources of that functional unpredictability: natural variability and learned variability. Natural variability is seen in baseline operant responding, during exploration of novel spaces, and under concurrent reinforcement schedules. Learned variability is seen in Karen Pryors reinforcement of novel responses in porpoises, Don Bloughs reinforcement of random interresponse times in pigeons, and reinforcement of more-or-less variable sequences that has been studied in my lab and others. I will describe psychophysical evidence in support of an operant variability theory of voluntary behavior and discuss implications for self control.




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