How a Behaviorist Views Motivation: Antecedents & Motivating Operations

Last week’s blog post provided an overview and introduction to the concept of motivation from a behaviorist’s perspective. If you haven’t read that post yet, I’d recommend going back and reading it before digging into this one.

In this post, I’m going to focus on antecedents and illustrate the role they play in relation to health behavior change. Recall that antecedents occur before the behavior and serve as prompts, cues, or triggers for the behavior.

Let’s look at a simple example and suppose that you are trying to increase your level of physical activity by increasing the number of steps taken per day:The illustration above makes it seem easy, right? All you need to do is go for a walk (behavior) when you notice that we’ve not yet met our step goal for the day (cue). But, what if you find yourself in the following situation:

As you can see above, if you go for a walk after dinner, you will miss watching your favorite TV show (By the way, I’m a fan of This is Us and The Voice – how about you?). Missing this show might be enough to deter you from going for that walk, so what can you do?

One option is to change the cue/prompt (antecedent) for our behavior:Antecedent alterations can be very useful within the context of health behavior change, especially when these changes make it easier (i.e., reduce effort) to make the harder choice. For example, if you refer back to the list of antecedents for unhealthy eating in the previous post, you’ll see some common eating-related cues. In addition to those, consider how other cues such as advertisements, the size of plates, cups, and food containers, and the presence of people while eating might influence your eating behavior.Notice how changing the antecedent led to a different version of the same behavior (walking) and results in two positive consequences. Thus, by altering the cue, we can change the situation to change our behavior to meet our goal in a way that still allows us to engage in other activities we enjoy.

A variety of simple changes can be made to redesign our environment to support healthier eating. Some of these include:

  1. Using smaller plates, bowls, and food containers.
  2. Filling our plate with appropriate portions (e.g., half of plate filled with veggies/fruits; other half filled with protein and starchy carbs).
  3. Reducing distractions that lead to mindless eating (e.g., eat without working, watching TV, reading, or browsing the web).
  4. Keeping healthy convenience snacks readily available (e.g., bowl of fruit on countertop, pre-cut veggies in fridge).

Not sure where to start? As you go about your day, notice with curiosity the times you tend to eat more or move less than intended – what is happening and how are you feeling in those moments. As you begin to identify cues for unhealthy behaviors, you can begin to think about how you can change them to make the healthier choice easier.


On the surface, identifying cues (antecedents) and changing them probably seems pretty easy. Perhaps you’ve even made some of these changes, yourself, only to find that the resulting behavior change was short-term at best.

A behavior analytic approach to influencing behavior requires a deeper understanding of a more complex type of antecedent stimulus: the motivating operation. Motivating operations provide insight about why a consequence might vary or change in value to an individual, thus altering its effectiveness for influencing behavior. Though I’m going to do my best not to get too technical, I do want to share enough to illustrate the role motivating operations can play in health behavior change.

According to Michael (2004), a motivating operation is an environmental event, change, or condition that has two simultaneous functions: (1) alters the effectiveness of a rewarding or punishing consequence (what happens during/after the behavior) and (2) alters the likelihood of the occurrence of behaviors that have led to the same/similar rewarding or punishing consequence in the past.

Michael makes the distinction between unconditioned motivating operations and conditioned motivating operations (and describes three different types of conditioned motivating operations); however, I am not going to get into the nitty-gritty of the distinction for purposes of introducing this concept (see the resource cited below for more detail and information).

Thus, motivating operations can make the consequences of a behavior more or less desirable and, in turn, increase or decrease the odds that an individual will act in a way to obtain that consequence/outcome.

If we consider our eating behavior, food deprivation (MO) establishes food as an effective (positive) reinforcer and increases the frequency of all behavior previously reinforced with food.

*More concretely:

Time 1 (in past): MO (food deprivation): Behavior (goes to pantry, gets a bag of chips)àConsequence (eats chips)

Time 2 (next day): MO (food deprivation): Behavior (goes to pantry)

In this example, at Time 2, the MO of food deprivation (1) increases the reinforcing value of the chips (consequence) and (2) prompts/cues the behavior of going to the pantry because this behavior of going to the pantry has been reinforced by getting a bag of chips in the past.

If we consider our physical activity example, activity deprivation (MO) establishes activity as an effective (positive) reinforcer and increases the frequency of all behavior previously reinforced with activity.

*More concretely:

Time 1 (in past): MO (activity deprivation): Behavior (goes outside, goes for a walk) –> Consequence (gets movement/activity)

Time 2 (next day): MO (activity deprivation): Behavior (goes for a walk)

In this example, at Time 2, the MO of activity deprivation (1) increases the reinforcing value of physical activity/movement (consequence) and (2) prompts/cues the behavior of going for a walk because this behavior of going for a walk has been reinforced by getting physical activity in the past.

Likewise, we would see a decrease in the likelihood that someone would go to the pantry or go outside for a walk if they were full or had just eaten a huge meal (food satiation) or had just returned from a walk/exercise (activity satiation). The value of food or activity as reinforcing consequences under these circumstances (MOs) is less and therefore decreases the odds that an individual will act in a way to obtain those consequences/outcomes.

Therefore, just like we can alter simple antecedent cues, there are ways that we can also alter motivating operations related to a variety of variables (e.g., food, water, sleep, activity, temperature, pain, feedback, goals, threats, notices) to make the consequences of behavior more or less desirable.

Still with me? Good! I have one more example that I want to share to illustrate how I think values-focused goals play a role in influencing health-related behavior.

A goal can be described as the desired outcome of a particular behavior or set of behaviors. Therefore, goal setting involves specifying the level or standard of performance to be attained, usually within a predetermined time frame (e.g., Fellner and Sulzer-Azaroff 1984; Locke and Latham 2002).

Values-focused goals are those that reflect one’s personal values. You might think of this as “want to” goals versus “should” or “have to” goals that are set in order to avoid social criticism or achieve social approval. Values-focused goals allow you to work toward something that matters to you, for you, and adds value to your life.

So, let’s use our example of a daily step goal of 10,000 steps, assuming that being healthy and active is something we value and achieving the goal is one way to move toward being healthier and active.

In my research on goals and feedback-seeking behavior, I have suggested that a performance goal may serve as a motivating operation for feedback seeking (Slowiak & Neutzman, 2014). As a motivating operation, the presence of a goal would first increase the value of feedback that indicates that either (a) the difference between the goal and actual performance is decreasing [e.g., getting closer to reaching 10,000 steps] or that actual performance has met or exceeded the goal [e.g., number of steps ≥ 10,000]. Once the goal increases the value of positive feedback, the unmet goal cues behaviors leading to increased performance, along with feedback-seeking behavior (which serves to provide information about the performance-goal discrepancy).

Okay, this is where I’m going to end today’s post. As an academic, I continue to research the characteristics that influence the effectiveness of goals, feedback, and feedback seeking. My intention is to continue to research the function of goals and feedback as motivating operations, as well as to assess the role of values-focused goals in health behavior change.

In next week’s post, I will focus on the other end of the A-B-C contingency to discuss the role of consequences in more detail, including the distinction between natural and programmed consequences and how this relates to the misconceptions about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and why our ultimate goal for sustainable health behavior change should be to come into contact with naturally-occurring positive reinforcers.


Want to learn more about changing behavior from a behavior-analytic approach? Check out the resources below:

Martin, G. L., & Pear, J. J. (2015). Behavior modification: What is it and how to do it (10th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson-Prentice Hall.

Michael, J. (2004). Concepts and principles of behavior analysis (pp. 45-51, 135-150). Kalamazoo, MI: Society for the Advancement of Behavior Analysis.

Slowiak, J. M., & Nuetzman, A. (2014). The impact of goals and pay on feedback-seeking behavior. The Psychological Record, 64(2), 217-232.

Are you are looking to develop your own coaching skills to improve client success? I’d love to discuss the opportunity work with you. Contact me today!