[Paleopsych] Reiss and Havercamp: The Sensitivity Theory of Motivations
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Steven Reiss* and Susan Havercamp: The Sensitivity Theory of
Motivations: Implications for Psychopathology
Behavioral Research and Thererapy, 34.8 (1996): 621-32
[Another published paper by Steven Reiss and his colleague, Susan
Havercamp. I have been beating a drum for Reiss's 16 fundamental human
motives for some time.]
Nisonger Center, The Ohio State University, 1581 Dodd Drive, Columbus,
OH 43210-1296, U.S.A.
*Author for correspondence.
(Received 4 March 1996)
Summary--Sensitivity theory holds that people differ in both the types of
reinforcement they desire and in the amounts of reinforcement they need to
satiate. People who crave too much love, too much attention, too much
acceptance, too much companionship, or too much of some other fundamental
reinforcer are at risk for aberrant behavior because normative behavior does
not produce the desired amounts of reinforcement. People who are intolerant of
even everyday amounts of anxiety or frustration also are at risk for aberrant
behavior. Individual differences in desired amounts of particular reinforcers
may predict person-environment interactions, risk factors for psychopathology,
and the occurrence of generalized and durable therapy effects versus the
occurrence of relapses. Parallel predictions are made for individual
differences in tolerance of aversive stimuli. Implications are discussed for
applied behavior analysis, the development of psychopathology, and treatment
Anxiety sensitivity refers to individual differences in what people think will
happen to them when they experience anxiety (Reiss & McNally, 1985; Reiss,
1991). People with high anxiety sensitivity believe that the experience of
anxiety will cause them bodily or psychological harm, whereas people with low
anxiety sensitivity believe that anxiety is just an unpleasant but harmless
emotion that readily dissipates. Theoretically, people with high anxiety
sensitivity have a low capacity to cope with anxiety and are at risk of
developing Panic Disorder, other anxiety disorders, and many ordinary fears
(Reiss, Peterson, Gursky & McNally, 1986; Reiss, 1991; Taylor, Koch & McNally,
1992). On the other hand, people with low anxiety sensitivity have a high
capacity to cope with anxiety.
The concept of anxiety sensitivity (AS) has been extensively validated
(McNally, 1994; Peterson & Reiss, 1992; Taylor, 1995). High scores on the
Anxiety Sensitivity Index (ASI) are strongly associated with Panic Disorder
(Cox, 1994;McNally, 1992;Peterson & Reiss, 1992), even when scores on a variety
of alternative anxiety and fear measures are held constant. High AS has been
found to be a risk factor for panic responses to biological challenges in
laboratory situations (Holloway & McNally, 1987; Rapee, Brown, Antony & Barlow,
1992; Telch & Harrington, 1994). AS is strongly related to fearfulness and only
moderately related to frequency of anxiety and stress experiences (Reiss et
al., 1986; McNally & Lorenz, 1987; Taylor, 1995). ASI scores at the end of
treatment for Panic Disorder predict relapse better than alternative measures
(Bruce, Spiegel, Gregg & Nuzzarello, 1995; Jones & Barlow, 1991). In addition
to Panic Disorder and other anxiety disorders, AS is associated with alcoholism
(Stewart, Knize & Phil, 1992; Stewart, 1994).
In this article, a general theory of human motivation is proposed. The idea of
individual differences in reinforcement effectiveness, implicit in the concept
of anxiety sensitivity, is applied to a broader list of fundamental motivators.
Thus, this is a major expansion of previous theoretical ideas.
STATEMENT OF THEORY
The sensitivity theory of motivation may be viewed as a call for research on
individual differences in what people want from their lives. Of course,
psychologists already have provided considerable research on this topic.
Sensitivity theory suggests, however, that the psychological analysis provided
to date has been inadequate because of certain methodological limitations that
are common in psychological research.
Psychologists generally have evaluated only one type of motivation at a time.
Yet in everyday life people can pursue multiple types of reinforcements
simultaneously, or they can switch from pursuing one type of reinforcement to
another. For example, the person who reads a newspaper while eating is pursuing
simultaneously both intellectual satisfaction and food. The person who puts
down a newspaper to start a morning walk has switched from pursuing the
satisfactions of intellectual activity to those of physical activity. Although
such 'motivation switching' is a fundamental aspect of everyday behavior, there
are few psychological efforts to account for it. Animal and human participants
were not permitted to switch motivation in virtually all psychological
experiments on motivation reported to date. By not studying in greater depth
when people switch from seeking one reinforcer to another, psychologists may
have underestimated the importance of individual differences in rates of
satiation (individual differences in desired amounts of various reinforcers).
Another reason psychologists have underestimated individual differences in
desired amounts of reinforcement concerns the tendency to study animals in
deprivational states. Deprivation induces common motivation in animals who
otherwise may have very different motivations. For example, the behavioral
consequences of individual differences in appetite are temporarily obscured by
deprivational procedures that make animals very hungry. The motivational
principles that apply to starving animals may not generalize well to other
animals who are not necessarily starving, and they may be even less applicable
to the everyday lives of people. Whereas almost all starving people spend most
of their time and energy searching for food, people who are not starving show
considerable individual differences in the amount of time and energy devoted to
the preparation and consumption of meals. Sensitivity theory reminds us that
routinely inducing deprivational states obscures differences in how much
reinforcement individuals want, a potentially important variable for
understanding human motivation.
Our discussion of sensitivity theory begins with the concept of a reinforcement
sensitivity, which is defined here as an individual difference in the
reinforcing effectiveness of a fundamental motivator. The three key phrases in
this definition are 'reinforcing effectiveness', 'individual difference', and
'fundamental motivator'. The meaning of each of these phrases will be discussed
in this article along with comments on resistance to satiation. In this
discussion, the terms motivator and reinforcer will be used interchangably.
Moreover, two types of reinforcers, called rewards and aversive stimuli, will
The concept of reinforcement sensitivity has some similarities with the
Hull-Spence concept of drive and with related concepts such as that of an
'establishing operation' (Hull, 1952; Keller & Schoenfeld, 1950). The higher
the degree of reinforcement sensitivity, the stronger is the associated
motivational drive. A crucial difference, however, is that sensitivity refers
to a stable individual difference, whereas drive and establishing operation
refer to situational phenomena.
The phrase reinforcing effectiveness refers to the strength of a particular
motivator for a particular individual (cf. Rescorla & Wagner, 1972). The more
effective a given reinforcer, the stronger (higher) is the person's drive or
motivational state. Deprivational states temporarily increase the effectiveness
or motivational strength of a deprived reinforcer. For example, food
deprivation increases the strength of the person's motivation to obtain food,
social isolation increases the strength of the individual's motivation for
companionship, and prolonged exposure to the same environment increases the
drive for stimulus novelty.
Theoretically, the more effective a reward is for a particular person: (1) the
larger is the amount of reinforcement needed to satiate the person; (2) the
more intense and persistent is the person's seeking of reinforcement; (3) the
more impatient the person is in waiting for reinforcement; and (4) the lower is
the amount of reward that can function as reinforcement for instrumental
behavior. The more effective a given aversive stimulus is for a particular
person: (1) the lower is the person's threshold for performing coping/avoidance
responses; (2) the more intense and persistent is the person's performance of
coping/avoidance responses; (3) the more quickly the person will perform
coping/avoidance responses; and (4) the lower is the amount of aversive
stimulation that can function as negative reinforcement for instrumental
There are many everyday examples of these principles. Children who present
clinically as chronically 'starved for attention' want large amounts of
attention immediately. People with a low threshold for pain put off going to a
dentist as long as they can and jump at the most minimal sensations when the
dentist begins drilling. Gluttons become impatient waiting for dinner. A person
with high anxiety sensitivity shows panic when biologically challenged
(Holloway & McNally, 1987). People who are starving will work to obtain very
small amounts of food if that is all that is available. People with high
anxiety sensitivity avoid situations in which even minimal anxiety is expected.
Up to this point, reinforcement sensitivities have been discussed in terms of
their similarities to states of deprivation. However, even though reinforcement
sensitivities and states of deprivation have similar consequences (both induce
drive), reinforcement sensitivities are not the result of states of
deprivation. Consider the distinction between gluttony and hunger. A glutton is
a person who habitually has a hearty appetite and overeats for pleasure--the
dictionary indicates that gluttons are people who enjoy eating above other
pleasures (Kipfer, 1993). Because gluttony is a personality (individual
difference) concept, it applies to only some people. In contrast, hunger is a
temporary situational state related mostly to how long it has been since one's
last meal; the term hunger is not a personality factor and potentially applies
to anyone who has not eaten in a while. Sensitivity theory is concerned with
personality concepts such as gluttony, not with deprivational concepts such as
At first consideration, the idea of stable individual differences in the
effectiveness of certain reinforcers may seem counterintuitive. After all,
psychologists have long thought that virtually everybody seeks pleasure and
avoids anxiety and pain. If almost everybody is motivated to obtain rewards and
avoid aversive stimuli, the concept of 'individual differences' may seem to be
Although all people are to some degree motivated to eat, the amount of time,
effort, and persistence devoted to the pursuit of food may vary significantly
from one individual to the next. The amount of food required for satiation
varies considerably from one person to the next, even when deprivational
factors are held constant. This is recognized in everyday life by references to
some people as being 'good eaters' or having 'hearty appetites'. These phrases
suggest recognition among lay people that there are stable individual
differences in the motivational strength of rewards such as food. The plain
fact is that some people just like eating much more than most people.
Similarly, the amount of time, effort, and persistence people devote to the
pursuit of happiness (positive mood) varies considerably from one individual to
the next. The platitude 'everybody wants to be happy' trivializes potentially
important individual differences in effort. Some people try to look at
everything positively and make the most out of whatever happens. These people
work at being happy and organize a large portion of their everyday lives to
achieve it. Others make only token efforts to escape a life filled with
burdens, boredom, or misery. These observations are made not as a value
judgment on people's lives but as a factual statement that individuals differ
considerably in the effort they make to experience positive moods.
At this point, our analysis of individual differences is descriptive rather
than explanatory. The intent here is not to explain why some people eat more
than others in terms of their having a stronger appetite or to explain why some
people seek attention in terms of greater need. Rather, the intent simply is to
observe that some people have hearty appetites, so that we may use this fact
later to explain other psychological phenomena.
Individual differences in reinforcement sensitivity should be considered only
with reference to a particular reward or aversive stimulus. It would be invalid
to say something like, "Bill has higher reinforcement sensitivity than Jane".
On the other hand, Bill might have a high reinforcement sensitivity for
attention, and Jane might have a high reinforcement sensitivity for physical
Resistance to satiation. One difference between situationally-induced
motivational states such as hunger, and motivational states associated with
stable individual differences such as gluttony, is that satiation occurs much
more readily in situation-induced states than in person-specific states. People
who are deprived of food readily satiate when they eat a full meal. In
contrast, after eating a large meal, gluttons are quick to crave food again. A
high reinforcement sensitivity for food, as in gluttony and in other conditions
such as Prader Willi Syndrome (a rare condition associated with hyptotonia,
hypergonadism, extreme obesity, and sometimes mental retardation), implies
resistance to satiation and a relatively quick reinstatement of motivational
states following the consumption of reinforcement.
Origins of reinforcement sensitivities. How does it happen that some people
become gluttons and others become intellectuals? No specific hypotheses on the
origins of reinforcement sensitivity will be advanced here. The question of
what accounts for the individual differences in sensitivities will be left
unanswered. It would be helpful to know what accounts for the occurrence of
sensitivities, and why some people show much higher sensitivity than others.
However, this knowledge is not essential to support the various research
suggestions and hypotheses expounded in this article. It is not unusual for
hypotheses of individual differences to be offered without hypotheses regarding
origin. For example, the concept of intelligence has proven useful even though
we do not fully understand the origins of individual differences in
intelligence. It is possible that reinforcement sensitivity will prove to be a
useful construct even though we presently do not know the origin of
Reinforcement preferences. Psychologists have long recognized individual
differences in preferences for particular reinforcers. Applied behavior
analysts routinely assess the individual's preferences for various reinforcers
in order to select one for use in a contingency management program. Whereas one
child might prefer to be reinforced by candy, another might prefer time in an
enjoyable activity. To help therapists select motivators, some researchers have
developed reinforcement checklists (Bihm, Poindexter, Kienlen & Smith, 1992).
Behavior analysts have recognized a relationship between reinforcement
preference and reinforcement effectiveness. The primary reason for assessing an
individual's preference for reinforcement is to maximize the effectiveness of a
contingency management program by using the most effective reinforcer for a
particular person. For example, if a person prefers physical activity to adult
attention, the opportunity for physical activity may function as the more
effective reinforcer in contingency management programs.
The Premack Principle is relevant to these comments (Premack, 1959, 1965). This
principle suggests that reinforcement preference in a free operant situation is
a measure of reinforcement effectiveness. The Principle holds that access to a
more highly preferred activity can be used to reinforce time in a less
preferred activity but not vice versa. The Principle has been supported by
numerous studies with both animal and human Ss, although some have suggested
alternative interpretations (Dunham, 1977).
What is new or different about the concept of reinforcement sensitivity, given
the Premack Principle and the recognition of individual differences in
reinforcement preferences? In the past, reinforcement preferences were
considered technical details that were assessed in order to maximize the
effectiveness of contingency management programs. If it were found that a child
had a strong preference for adult attention, attention was used to reinforce
operant behavior. However, no effort was made to modify the strength of the
individual's attraction for attention. Rarely have psychologists assessed
reinforcement preferences in order to modify those preferences or to modify the
reinforcing effectiveness of a particular reward or aversive stimulus. This is
what is called for under sensitivity theory, as explained later in this
Fundamental motivators are defined here as conceptually distinct reinforcers
relevant to understanding a significant amount of behavior displayed by a large
percentage of all people. The criterion of conceptual distinctiveness means
that fundamental motivators cannot be analyzed entirely as combinations of
other sources of motivation. For example, swimming is not a fundamental
motivator partially because it can be reduced to a more fundamental motivator,
physical activity. On the other hand, moral behavior is suggested to be a
fundamental motivator. This suggestion is based on the view that the desire to
behave morally cannot be explained entirely in terms of avoidance of punishment
for immoral behavior. If future research were to find that this desire is
ultimately reducible to the desire to avoid punishment, moral behavior no
longer would be considered to be a fundamental motivator.
Each fundamental motivator induces a drive in a great many people. Fundamental
motivators are either rewarding or aversive for almost everybody. They are
distinguished from nonfundamental motivators, which are rewarding or aversive
for relatively few people. For example, sexual pleasure is suggested to be a
fundamental motivator because it is motivating for almost everybody, whereas
reading mysteries is not suggested to be a fundamental motivator because it is
reinforcing for only a relatively small percentage of all people.
Fundamental motivators reinforce substantial amounts of behaviors in everyday
lives, and/or they reinforce behaviors that generally are considered to be
important or significant. Food is suggested to be a fundamental motivator
because people expend a great deal of time and effort preparing and consuming
meals and because overeating and undereating are major health and psychological
issues. On the other hand, drinking water is not suggested to be a fundamental
motivator because people expend little effort in their everyday lives to obtain
water and because the associated seeking behaviors are considered relatively
unimportant in psychology.
Sensitivity theory suggests a need for research to identify the fundamental
motivators of humankind. What rewards are to some degree desired by virtually
everybody? What aversive stimuli are to some degree avoided by virtually
everybody? How do various motives relate to one another and which ones can be
analyzed in terms of others? Although a number of personality theorists have
attempted to address these questions, especially Murray (1938), researchers
have produced surprisingly few efforts to provide a comprehensive listing of
fundamental motives. Most personality theories do not provide a comprehensive
account of fundamental motives, identifying at most only a few of them.
A preliminary list of fundamental motives is presented in Table 1. This list
represents the authors' own views based on an analysis of the motivational
constructs discussed in major personality theories (Hall & Lindzey, 1957).
Since the main purpose of sensitivity theory is to identify issues for future
research, this list is offered as an example of the sort of analysis we hope
someday will result from empirical research. Although we have given our list
considerable thought--this is by no means a hastily developed or arbitrary
list--we recognize that the list is at the moment without empirical support and
that many readers will take issue with at least some of the items on the list.
Diverse opinions on the subject are welcome, provided we all agree that the
issues need to be studied empirically.
Table I. Preliminary list of fundamental motives
Acceptance/Success The satisfaction associated with acceptance by
Anger/Frustrative Impulses The discomfort associated with aggressive or
frustrative impulses that occur in response to a
perceived threat to self-esteem or to one's physical well-being.
Anxiety The belief that experiencing anxiety is personally harmful.
Attention The satisfaction derived from adult consideration of the
Companionship The satisfaction derived from spending time in the company
of other people.
Competence (Mastery) The satisfaction derived from competence in the
performance of a skill.
Curiosity The satisfaction derived from exploration of novel stimuli.
Dominance (Leadership) The satisfaction derived from directing or
influencing the behavior of others.
Food The satisfaction derived from eating.
Help Others The satisfaction derived from providing assistance to a
Help Society The satisfaction derived from contributing to
Independence The satisfaction derived from doing things on one's own
without assistance or interference from
Love/Romance The satisfaction associated with romance.
Morality The satisfaction derived from behavior in accordance with a
code defining right versus wrong
Nuturance The satisfaction derived from taking care of people, animals,
Order The satisfaction derived from an organization of time, events, or
things into a well-defined pattern
in one's everyday life.
Physical Activity The satisfaction derived from exercise of the body.
Physical Pain The discomfort associated with bodily injury (tissue
damage), inflammation, or bodily spasms.
Positive Mood The satisfaction derived from states of positive mood, as
in happiness and optimism.
Positive Self-Regard The satisfaction associated with positive
Self-Control The satisfaction associated with mastery over one's
impulses, social reactions, and emotional
Sexual Gratification The satisfaction derived from real or fantasized
sexual intercourse or foreplay.
Social Conflict The discomfort associated with social strife such as
arguments, disagreements, and opposition.
Survival The desire to stay alive.
Vengeance The satisfaction derived from retaliation for those real or
imagined acts of others that the person
perceives to be offensive, aggressive, or threatening.
There are many aspects of Table 1 that are subject to alternative viewpoints.
For example, some readers may question the suggestion that helping others and
helping society are conceptually distinct reinforcers rather than substantially
related motives. We suggest distinct motivators because we have observed people
who seem to enjoy helping friends but pay little attention to social issues,
and vice versa. Whether or not this view will be confirmed by factor analysis
or other research remains to be seen.
The task of generating a comprehensive list of fundamental motivators is
challenging. The main difficulty is to generate a list that meets the criteria
of conceptual distinctiveness and is comprehensive in its totality. This cannot
be accomplished by developing a list of biological drives. As suggested by the
list presented in Table 1, some fundamental motivators are not biological
drives. Moreover, the motivational effects of biological drives are influenced
by culture, personality, and learning. For example, the motivational properties
of sex for any given person reflect both the person's biological drive and the
person's culture, attitudes, morality, and past experiences with sex. The
motivational implications of food may be influenced considerably by
self-perceptions of being a 'skinny' or 'fat' person. Generally, fundamental
motivation is determined by a combination of both biological and psychological
Individual differences. Individuals show important differences in the
strength of the motivations listed in Table 1. Some people are extremely
interested in surviving, whereas alcoholics drink themselves to death. Some
people panic in anxious situations, whereas others readily approach them.
American football players withstand considerable physical pain that the more
squeamish among us would avoid at all cost. To the extent that psychological
theories of motivation have all people equally motivated to seek pleasure, or
equally motivated to avoid anxiety, these theories are in disagreement with
Researchers who disagree with the assumption of individual differences should
be careful to avoid arguing a tautology. For example, the argument that
everybody seeks pleasure can become tautological if work is defined as pleasure
for workaholics. If both the hedonist and the workaholic are viewed as seeking
pleasure, important differences in motivation are trivialized. The hedonist
attends every party possible, whereas the workaholic can hardly relax and stop
working long enough to enjoy a single party. Rather than say that both seek
pleasure, sensitivity theorists say that both seek reinforcement, but that what
reinforces the two is very different. The hedonist has a high reinforcement
sensitivity for sexual pleasure, whereas the workaholic has a high
reinforcement sensitivity for the pleasures of intellectual activity, physical
activity, and/or helping society.
Set points. Under sensitivity theory every person has a set point for each
fundamental motivator. The set point indicates either the amount of reward an
individual desires or the strength of an aversive stimulus an individual will
tolerate. A person with an aberrantly high or low set point is said to have a
reinforcement sensitivity for that motivator. Consider the example of
companionship. The hypothesis of set points implies individual differences in
how much companionship people seek in their daily lives. People with high set
points seek a great deal of company, whereas those with low set points prefer
to be alone quite a bit. If the amount of companionship in one's everyday life
is less than that indicated by the set point, the individual is temporarily
motivated to seek additional amounts of companionship (now a positive
reinforcer). If the amount of companionship in one's everyday life is more than
that implied by the set point, the individual is temporarily motivated to avoid
(decrease the amount of) companionship (temporarily a negative reinforcer).
Depending on one's set point, a fundamental reinforcer may be pleasant or
annoying. For example, attention is positively reinforcing for some (show-offs)
and negatively reinforcing for others (shy people). Under sensitivity theory,
show-offs have high set points for attention; that is, they require large
amounts of attention before satiating. In contrast, shy people have low set
points for attention; that is, they desire small amounts of attention and find
large amounts annoying. Although the details will not be developed here, the
concept of set point may be relevant to explaining motivation switching
behavior in which a person seeks one type of reinforcer at one point and
another a moment later. As previously noted, motivation switching is a basic
phenomenon of behavior, but it has received surprisingly little attention.
Theoretically, the key to such behavior for any individual may be the relative
strength/set point of each motivation as compared with the rate at which each
type of reward and aversive stimulus is experienced, with the greatest
discrepancies controlling the person's behavior. Since such discrepancies
should vary from one moment to the next, people may switch from seeking one
reinforcer to seeking another, or they may seek both simultaneously.
Measurement. A number of alternative methods may be applicable to assessing
reinforcement sensitivities. One possibility is to assess free-operant
preferences, such as the amount of time a person chooses to spend in an
activity when many choices can be made (Premack, 1959, 1965). However, such
assessments would need to be standardized across individuals to identify
persons who are high and low on various reinforcer preferences.
The Motivation Assessment Scale (MAS: Durand & Crimmins, 1988) is a popular
scale for assessing four of the most common motivations of self-injurious
behavior (sensory, escape, attention, tangible). However, the MAS has not been
standardized. Moreover, the psychometric properties of the MAS are limited by
the fact that it has only four items on each of four subscales. As already
noted, the Anxiety Sensitivity Index (ASI: Reiss et al., 1986; Peterson &
Reiss, 1992) is a 16-item, self-report measure that has been extensively
validated (McNally, 1994; Taylor, 1995). Researchers have also developed a
Child ASI (Silverman, Lesig, Rabian & Peterson, 1991). The authors currently
are developing self-report and informant-rating instruments for assessing
reinforcement sensitivities, one for the general population and the other for
the population of people with mental retardation. The instruments will provide
MMPI-like, individual profiles of set points on fundamental motivators derived
from a factor analysis.
The successful development of measures of reinforcement sensitivity may lead to
many new research opportunities. To the extent to which people seek out what
they want, measures of reinforcement sensitivities may be helpful in predicting
some person-environment interactions. Additionally, psychopathology researchers
may wish to compare standardized motivation profiles obtained from different
diagnostic groups. For example, it would be interesting to compare motivational
profiles associated with the various personality disorders.
Sensitivity theory potentially has broad implications. For the sake of brevity,
however, our present discussion of implications will be limited to
self-injurious behavior in persons with mental retardation, the development of
aberrant behavior, and clinical strategies.
In the 1970s a number of researchers found that different cases of
self-injurious behavior were associated with any of four different motivations.
Different people with self-injury are motivated by attention, internal
stimulation ('self-reinforcing' behavior), escape from frustrative task
demands, and tangible reinforcers (Carr, 1977; Napolitan, 1979). These findings
stimulated the use of an assessment technique called functional analysis
(Iwata, Dorsey, Slifer, Bauman & Richman, 1982; Kanfer & Saslow, 1969). This
technique provides an empirical method for classifying the motivational source
of specific examples of self-injury. As Iwata et al. (1982) put it,
Carr (1977) indicated that the behavior may be reinforced through extrinsic
sources (e.g. through positive reinforcement such as attention, or negative
reinforcement such as the termination of demands), or that the behavior itself
may produce some form of intrinsic reinforcement (e.g, sensory stimulation,
pain reduction). This conceptualization of self-injury as a multiply controlled
operant would indicate that no single form of treatment can be expected to
produce consistent positive results, and it suggests that one means of
selecting a potentially effective treatment would consist of first determining
what events are currently maintaining the behavior.
As the preceding quotation indicates, functional analysis is used to help
select an operant treatment method. The idea is first to identify the nature of
the motivation and then to use that information to extinguish the
self-injurious response(s). For example, if it were found that self-injury is
being motivated by attention, the therapist might ignore future instances of
self-injury while attending to alternative behaviors. In this manner, the
therapist would attempt to extinguish self-injurious behavior while
strengthening an alternative behavior. On the other hand, if it were found that
self-injury is being motivated by escape from frustrative task demands, the
therapist might attempt to extinguish self-injury by never allowing escape when
this behavior occurs.
Sensitivity theory may provide a basis for strengthening functional analysis by
focusing attention on the role of individual differences in operant
conditioning. Sensitivity theory suggests that what is aberrant is not only the
self-injurious behavior but also the individual's sensitivity to reinforcing
attention or to frustrative task demands. Thus, treatment should be aimed not
only at extinguishing the self-injurious behavior but also at reducing the
aberrant reinforcement sensitivities that may create predispositions for
Alcohol addiction provides a helpful analogy of some of the main points to be
made here about reinforcement sensitivity and functional analysis. Suppose that
therapists at a substance abuse clinic determine that an individual is stealing
money in order to support a drinking habit rather than a heroin habit or abuse
of some other substance. In theory, the stealing could be extinguished either
by giving the individual free alcohol or by controlling the individual's
environment so that stealing money cannot lead to drinking. Although the
treatment might effectively extinguish stealing behavior under circumstances
where the therapist can control the environment, it would not treat the
person's addiction to alcohol. As soon as the therapist's control of the
consequences of stealing weakens, the individual will return to stealing to buy
People with a high reinforcement sensitivity may be thought of as having a
'psychological addiction' to a reinforcement. For example, people who engage in
self-injury to obtain high amounts of attention may be considered
'psychologically addicted' to attention. Just as people addicted to alcohol
seek aberrant quantities of alcohol, people addicted to attention seek aberrant
amounts of attention. Effective treatment of alcoholism requires a reduction in
the underlying need (addiction) for alcohol. Effective treatment of
self-injurious behavior motivated by attention sensitivity may require a
reduction in the underlying craving (seeking) for attention. That is, effective
treatment must do more than teach people that self-injury no longer leads to
attention (extinction); it also should reduce the motivation for aberrant
amounts of attention.
What does it mean to say that some people have a 'psychological addiction' for
attention? Technically, it means that they have a high degree of reinforcement
sensitivity for attention, as that term is defined herein. The addiction
metaphor works partially because addictions are person-specific variables
associated with personal suffering and indicating a need for treatment. The
addiction metaphor also works because it implies a problem in the amount of
substance the individual wishes to consume. The problem in alcoholism is not
that the person drinks but that the person drinks too much. Similarly,
sensitivity theory suggests that the problem in some examples of aberrant
behavior is not that the person seeks attention (or some other fundamental
reinforcement) but that the person seeks too much attention.
These theoretical issues suggest a number of possible future research issues.
If motivations for self-injury are determined by high reinforcement
sensitivities, the following should be true. Engaging in self-injurious
behavior for attention (or to avoid frustrative task demands) should be part of
a general pattern of behavior in which the individual engages in a variety of
aberrant behaviors in order to obtain attention (or avoid frustration). The
attention-seeking should present as a stable individual difference in
motivation that has been true of the individual for a long time, is difficult
to modify, and usually will last indefinitely unless specifically reduced by
successful treatment methods. Just as anxiety sensitivity levels at the end of
treatment have been found to predict relapse rates for patients successfully
treated for anxiety disorder (Bruce et al., 1995; Jones & Barlow, 1991),
reinforcement sensitivity levels at the end of treatment may predict relapse
rates for extinguished self-injurious behaviors.
Development of behavior disorders
When a person desires an unusually large or unusually small amount of
reinforcement, that person is said to be aberrantly motivated. Aberrant
motivation (very high reinforcement sensitivity or very low reinforcement
sensitivity) is assumed to result from complex interactions among biological,
developmental, conditioning, and cognitive factors. Theoretically, aberrant
motivation is a risk factor for aberrant behavior. That is, the amount of
reinforcement a person seeks (how much reinforcement is required to produce
satiation) may be the key to understanding the development of aberrant behavior
in at least some, if not many, people. Appropriate behavior usually is followed
by small or moderate amounts of reinforcement, whereas inappropriate behavior
sometimes is the best strategy for obtaining high amounts of reinforcement.
Since most people are satisfied with the amount of reinforcement that follows
socially appropriate behavior, most people learn socially appropriate
responses. However, people with high reinforcement sensitivity seek much higher
amounts of reinforcement than most people. These people are not satisfied with
the amount of reinforcement that follows socially appropriate behavior. For
these people, socially inappropriate behavior sometimes offers the best
strategy to obtain immediately a high amount of reinforcement.
Consider the example of a boy with a high sensitivity for attention. By
definition, the boy should behave as if he is chronically 'starved' for
attention. The child should show vigorous efforts to obtain as much attention
as immediately as possible. For this child, engaging in inappropriate behavior
may be an effective strategy to obtain quickly a large amount of reinforcement.
This theory is different from previous learning theory explanations of the role
of reinforcement in the development of behavior disorders. Past explanations
held that some children learned aberrant behavior when it was inadvertently
reinforced. The pathogenic agent was in the environment in the form of
response-reinforcement contingent relationships that inadvertently favored the
learning and performance of aberrant behavior. In contrast, reinforcement
sensitivity theory holds that the pathogenic agent sometimes is partially
'within' the person, not the environment. That is, people with a high
reinforcement sensitivity react to the same environment very differently than
Sometimes people develop aberrant behavior because they want something too
badly or too quickly. A person who has not eaten in a long time starts thinking
about food constantly so that obtaining food starts to dominate the person's
behavior. In a similar fashion, people who develop aberrant behavior may want
to be loved too much, may need companionship too often, may need to escape
immediately from frustration, or may desire pleasure all the time. At times
these motivations may be extremely strong and dominate the person's behavior.
Therapists should assess the degree to which a person's aberrant behavior may
be related to aberrant motivation and directly treat the aberrant motivation as
one component of an overall therapy plan. A number of direct treatment
strategies may be attempted depending on the individual and circumstances.
Possible strategies to be explored by future researchers include the following:
(a) Cognitive therapy may alter reinforcement sensitivities by changing
attitudes and beliefs about the consequences of various reinforcers. For
example, anxiety sensitivity is reduced when people believe that the experience
of anxiety will not harm them.
(b) Psychotropic drugs may alter reinforcement sensitivities by affecting both
biological processes and cognitive expectancies. These drugs should be
evaluated for outcomes on aberrant motivation distinct from their effects on
(c) Research is needed on the effects of the length of treatment on changes in
aberrant motivation. Whereas short-term approaches sometimes may lead to
improvements in aberrant behavior, long term trials of behavior therapy may be
needed to change aberrant motivation. Reinforcing effectiveness may change if
people adjust to fixed quantities of a reinforcer given over a long period of
time. For example, if a glutton consistently ate a moderate amount of food,
eventually the person's appetite may adjust to a lower amount of food.
(d) It may be possible to increase the effectiveness of a reinforcer by
pairing it with a more effective reinforcer in Pavlovian trials. For example, a
therapist might attempt to treat social isolation behavior by pairing
companionship with a more effective reinforcer for the person.
(e) Desensitization and various exposure techniques sometimes may reduce high
sensitivities for anxiety (Harrington & Telch, 1994) and perhaps frustration.
(f) When ethical, counterconditioning may be an appropriate strategy for
decreasing reinforcement sensitivity by pairing a reinforcer with an aversive
stimulus (Bandura, 1969). For example, a therapist might decrease a high
reinforcement sensitivity for sex by pairing fetish stimuli with aversive
In contrast, the following strategies seem less likely to alter reinforcement
(a) Teaching people socially appropriate alternative behaviors may have little
impact in changing what they want. This strategy may work when skill deficits
are assessed to be the main problem, but not when aberrant motivation is
implicated. For example, teaching a thief appropriate job skills is of little
benefit because there are few jobs that can produce as much money as quickly as
(b) Extinction strategies may work well when the problem is a maladaptive
response-reinforce- ment contingency but not when aberrant motivation is
implicated. There is no particular reason to assume that simple extinction
alters what people want; it only alters the behaviors that produce what they
(c) Punishment strategies are unlikely to work when aberrant motivation is
associated with a problem behavior. Punishment temporarily may suppress
maladaptive behavior by creating a stronger motivation (avoidance of
punishment), but the person's aberrant motivation remains unchanged and will
stimulate maladaptive behavior in situations in which punishment is not
Because high reinforcement sensitivities are predicted to be risk factors for
psychopathology, aberrant motivation must be successfully treated if the
therapy is to have durable and generalized benefits. If aberrant behavior is
modified but aberrant motivation is left unchanged, the person is at risk for
relapse because he/she will crave high amounts of some fundamental reinforcer.
The person probably will not be able to obtain high amounts of reinforcement by
behaving in socially appropriate ways and, therefore, is at risk to resort to
aberrant behavior in an effort to obtain immediately the desired amounts of
reinforcement. Thus, measures of aberrant motivation at the end of treatment
may predict relapse rates. Researchers of anxiety disorders have obtained some
data supporting this hypothesis. Reduction of anxiety sensitivity has been
found to be an important factor in minimizing the risk of relapse in patients
with Panic Disorder (Bruce et al., 1995; Jones & Barlow, 1991).
Generally, three limitations may be noted to previous research on motivation.
First, psychologists have widely assumed but not critically examined the
hypothesis that everybody is equally motivated to seek pleasure/happiness and
equally motivated to avoid anxiety. People actually show wide individual
differences in the strength of these motives. Second, psychological theories of
motivation have been unduly influenced by the study of animals in deprivational
states. This method has obscured the role of individual differences in desired
amounts of various reinforcers. Whereas starving animals spend almost all of
their time and energy seeking large quantities of food, most people spend
widely varying amounts of time and energy pursuing a much broader range of
reinforcers. Third, psychologists have studied only one motivation at a time.
This has obscured the importance of individual differences in rates of
satiation. Whereas individual differences in satiation rates may seem
unimportant when only one motivation is considered, they seem relevant to
explaining motivation switching in which a person changes the type of
reinforcement he/she is pursuing.
The sensitivity theory of motivation has potentially important implications for
future research. First, the theory identifies individual differences in desired
amounts of reinforcement (individual differences in rates of satiation) as an
understudied and potentially important variable. Because people spend
considerable time and energy seeking the reinforcers they desire, these
individual differences may predict some person-environment interactions.
Second, the theory suggests the need for research to identify fundamental
sources of motivation. Surprisingly, psychologists have proposed very few
comprehensive lists of fundamental motivation. Third, a new theory on the
development of psychopathology is suggested based on the assumption that
different people not only desire different types of reinforcers but also desire
widely varying amounts of each fundamental reinforcer. Aberrant motivation is
indicated when a person wants too much of a particular type of reinforcement
and/or is too intolerant of everyday levels of some aversive stimulus such as
anxiety or frustration. Aberrant motivation may be a risk factor for
psychopathology because people usually cannot obtain high amounts of
reinforcement by behaving in socially appropriate ways. People sometimes resort
to inappropriate behavior as the best strategy to obtain a high amount of
immediate reinforcement. However, aberrant behavior rarely leads to enough
reinforcement to satiate aberrant desires; people with aberrant motives rarely
obtain what they want and are at risk for unhappiness.
Sensitivity theory has implications for practice. First, the development of
standardized measures that produce MMPI-like profiles of motivational set
points may help clinicians identify aberrant motivation and assess its role in
any particular case. To date, psychologists have produced thousands of
standardized measures, not one of which provides a comprehensive, standardized
profile of what motivates a therapy patient. The development of standardized
measures will help clinicians assess the extent to which a person's
psychopathology may be related to wanting too much love or too much attention
or too much acceptance. Second, the theory suggests reconsideration of when to
use certain clinical strategies. These strategies must be evaluated not only
for their effects on response-reinforcement contingencies but also for their
effects on aberrant motivation. For example, teaching people socially
appropriate skills to obtain desired reinforcers has been a popular strategy.
Although this strategy may be effective when the primary problem is a lack of
skill, it may be ineffective when an important part of the person's problem is
aberrant motivation. Teaching thieves employment skills may not work for those
who crave immediate riches; in such cases, it may be necessary to reduce the
greed for a durable and generalized treatment benefit. Finally, sensitivity
theory provides a basis for strengthening behavior analysis. In cases of
self-injurious behavior, for example, some people are motivated to escape
frustrative task demands, and they may be intolerant of even minor
These considerations should be regarded as theoretical suggestions, not
prescriptions for therapy. Sensitivity theory is in an early stage of
development. Researchers are encouraged to take advantage of the theory's
unique perspective to identify future areas of research and to test some of the
predictions suggested in this article.
Acknowledgement--The authors express their appreciation to Ellen Langer for her
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