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Role of Experimenter in the Emergence of Conditioned Reinforcement from Observation

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The Role of Experimenter in the Emergence of Conditioned Reinforcement from Observation

Every day millions of people around the world go to work for money, grab a cup of coffee in the morning, or engage in compulsory behaviors. While one may be able to analyze certain aspects of these behaviors or behavior patterns, little is known or studied addressing the underlying motivation associated with these behaviors (Williams, 1994). Researchers do know that humans are not born with the predisposition to work for money or to engage in compulsive checking of a social media account (Huges, De Houwer, & Perugini, 2016). These motives are learned (Dayan & Balleine, 2002). Overall, a great deal is known about human behavior in the field of behavior analysis. One can analyze the contingencies of reinforcement operating on a given behavior, analyze the function of such behavior, and effectively provided treatments to behavior with research based methods. While there is no doubt the field of applied behavior analysis has grown significantly over the last few decades, the relation between human behavior and the biological motives that underlie the reinforcement contingencies remain largely unstudied (Williams, 1994).

Williams (1994) stated, “the theoretical concept that has long served the primary burden for understanding acquired motives is conditioned reinforcement” (p. 261). Conditioned reinforcement has been defined several ways in literature with each highlighting defining characteristics of the term (Shahan, 2009). Conditioned reinforcers have been commonly defined as previously neutral stimuli that obtain reinforcing properties by their association with primary reinforcers or already established condition reinforcers (Bell & McDevitt, 2014). Pavlovian conditioning is primarily thought of the rationale as to how conditioned reinforcers acquire value (Williams, 1994). When a stimulus is paired with a Pavlovian reinforcer, early research indicated it not only acquires the ability to elicit the responses appropriate to the Pavlovian reinforcer, but it also acquires reinforcing value (Williams, 1994). The ability for neutral stimuli to seemly acquire the reinforcing qualities as a result of their relationship with a primary reinforcer is a powerful and influential aspect of behavioral research and warrants continued studies (Shahan, 2010). Along with defining conditioned reinforcement, there is an importance in the procedures used to study conditioned reinforcement.

Several procedures have been studied in order to investigate conditioned reinforcement. Research indicated conditioned reinforcement has been studied through examination of training a new response, extinction rates for an established response, observing responses, concurrent chains, discrimination learning and chain schedules. Each of the processes listed above incorporated its own foundation of literature providing a historical approach to the study of conditioned reinforcement. Bell and McDevitt (2014) noted although each process used to study conditioned reinforcement may have inherent weaknesses, viewing the results as a whole, the findings support the notion that conditioned reinforcers are indeed stimuli that acquire strength as a reinforcer on their own.

Used to access the degree to which a conditioned reinforcer has value (i.e. can maintain behavior) is the observing response procedural approach to test for conditioned reinforcement (Bell & McDevitt, 2014). This approach was initially studied by Wyckoff (1952) in what has been referred to as the Wykoff observing response procedure. Extending work in the use of an observing-response paradigm, several studies have analyzed the role of observing-response in the occurrence of conditioned reinforcement (e.g. Auge, 1974; Branch, 1970; Dinsmoor, Brown, and Lawrence, 1972; Dinsmoor, Browne, Lawrence, and Wasserman, 1971; Dinsmoor, Flint, Smith, and Viemeister, 1969; Hendry, 1969; Wilton & Clements, 1971; Kendall, 1972). As noted earlier, work in this area has decrease in interest over the years, with little current data emerging in this area. Shahan and Cunningham described one explanation of this in their review of past and current literature on conditioned reinforcement and observing responses (2015). Some of the mixed results surrounding conditioned reinforcement and observing responses (e.g. failures in information theory paired with successful applications of delayed reduction theory) offered researchers other theoretical accounts for observing, which coincided with the decrease of further attempts to apply information theory to conditioned reinforcement (Shahan & Cunningham, 2015). Williams (1994) also mentioned that part of the decrease in more current experimental research may be due to the criticism of its validity based on other major procedures being used to investigate the same concept. All the while, conditioned reinforcers continue to serve an influential role in the study of behavior as they guide our behavior through a complex world. It is important for continued research in this area through investigations in multiple aspects of conditioned reinforcement and observing responses. This paper seeks to address the need for additional research in the area of conditioned reinforcement and observing responses.

Review of Literature

Experimental Research: Animal Studies

Several determinants have been addressed in research on conditioning reinforcement and observing responses. Several examples will be provided in this paper, while a review of all literature exceeds the scope of this paper. In his study, Wyckoff (1952) examined the notion that under certain conditions, an organism in discrimination training has the opportunity to respond in one of two ways, one being an initial observing response. In the experiment conducted, Wycoff (1952) demonstrated this initial observing response produced the discriminative stimuli as well as simultaneously removed the mixed-schedule stimulus, which served as a source of reinforcement.

Wilter and Clements (1971) experiment analyzed the role of information in the production of observing responses. Results indicated that the use of an observing response provided consistent results further adding to the research on the notion that observing responses are reinforced by the information associated with the stimulus that signaled reinforcement. Dugatkin and Godin (1992), conducted research on the learning of new repertoires by observing pertaining to the mate choices of female guppies. Results indicated that the female guppies, sought out and mated with dull-colored male guppies after observing other female guppies mate with dull-colored males. This research provided evidence that went against previous assumptions that thought genetic traits were involved in mate selection in guppies. This study provided research on the effects of observational conditioning of new reinforcers in nonhuman subjects.

Gaynor and Shull (2002) studied whether evidence of differential observing could be found with an experimenter-controlled procedure on non-human subjects. Data recorded by Gaynor and Shull (2002) built upon previous research indicating a consistency in the theory of conditioned reinforcement and extended the generalization of selective observing responses used in procedures in which the experimenter controls the duration of stimulus presentations, the schedule components both offer intermittent food reinforcement, as well as used animal subjects (i.e. rats). The authors reported observing behaviors were differentiated in a manner suggesting selective observing occurred with regards to the rats’ observing behaviors. Data support the theory that S+ sets the occasion for maintained of observing and S- sets the occasion for termination of observing responses. Although more research has been related to the study of observing responses and conditioned reinforcement in nonhuman animals some studies have included human subjects. Several experiments related to the purpose of the current study will be presented in the next portion of this paper.

Experimental Research: Human Studies

A search of experimental research conducted with human subjects on conditioned reinforcement and observing responses provided far less research than studies that involved animals. Most of the literature found in this area pertained to the contingencies of reinforcement that function in learning through observation. This idea has developed and extended the role of observation on learning indirectly (i.e. observational learning). The research presented next analyzed the process of conditioned reinforcement and observing responses with human subjects. Most studies examined one aspect of observing and how that related to conditioned reinforcement; a few will be discussed further.

Perone and Kaminski (1992) studied conditioned reinforcement of human observing behavior. Specifically, the purpose of their work was to clarify what circumstance might reinforce human observing behavior. Three experiments were conducted with college aged students who earned momentary reinforcers for key pressing based on a compound schedule with variable-interval and extinction phases. Results indicated that under some circumstances, observing behavior was sustained by stimulus related with extinction. These results challenged the Pavlovian accounts of conditioned reinforcement. Overall, this study presented readers with the notion that Pavlovian process may contribute to negative discriminative stimuli served at reinforcement for observing.

Maffei, Singer-Dudek, and Keohane (2014) examined the role of conditioning reinforcement for observing adults’ faces and voices. Results indicated that all participants established increased attention to the presence of the speaker or listener, increased looking at a speaker, and listened and responded to instructional antecedents presented more willingly. In another study, Dinsmoor (1985) researched the role of observing behavior as it relates to the processes involved in attention. Realizing the difficulty in the study of attention from a behavioral perspective, Dinsmoor (1985) related this process to the establishment of stimulus control through observing responses. Dinsmoor (1985) postulated that the processes involved in attention were not accessible to observation, but the processes followed similar principles.

A key study presented in the literature directly related to this topic was work by Greer and Singer-Dudek (2008). In their study, Greer and Singer-Dudek (2008), tested whether items such as small plastic discs or string that served as non-reinforcers for the participants would emerge as reinforcers from conditions involving an observation intervention. Target participants observed other children receiving the items listed (disc and string) while being denied access to the same stimuli. The researchers tested the effects to see if observing responses would result in the previously non-reinforcing items becoming conditioned reinforcers while also examining if existing repertoires and the acquisition of new repertoires would occur through observation of the delivery of reinforcement. Prior to the intervention, presenting the disc or string did not function as reinforcement for the performance or learning of new operants. After the completion of the observational intervention, both items (string and disc) emerged as reinforcers. The results of the intervention were not attributable to other behaviors such as copying, imitation, etc., rather the observations may have resulted in the stimulus-stimulus pairing and observational conditioning.

Extension and Relevance of Future Research

Early and current researcher has proven the importance of conditioned reinforcement in in humans and non-humans alike. Schwartz (1978) stated:

People rarely engage in behavior which produces or avoids biologically significant               stimuli directly. Many people are virtually never deprived of food and water. If one is to               account for human behavior in terms of reinforcement principles one must look               elsewhere for the reinforcers … the applicability of the principles of behavior control may               depend upon our understanding of conditioned reinforcement. (p. 281)

This statement summarizes the benefits and usefulness of conditioned reinforcement in experimental behavior analysis today. Although studied in a myriad of ways, some questions remain unanswered. The purpose of this study was to investigate one such aspect (i.e. the role of the experimenter in the delivery of reinforcement through observing responses).

Previous research in condition reinforcement from observation has focused on the process and link to phylogenetic origins, but few have examined the role of the experimenter in the emergence of conditioned reinforcement from observation. By examining the role of the experimenter in the observational conditioning procedure one can analyze the importance and influence the person or machine delivering reinforcement is in in the acquisition of conditioned reinforcement (Greer & Singer-Dudek, 2008). To better understand the role of conditioned reinforcement for observing responses, one must examine what the literature can provide on this topic. In addition to the role of the peer, the role of the experimenter in the observational conditioning effect remains to be investigated more thoroughly.

After reviewing research on conditioned reinforcement, it can be said that research in this area has decreased significantly in the last few years (Williams, 2004) and has been the foundation for which the research question suggested in this paper has derived. Utilizing the knowledge gained in the experimental analysis of behavior thus far, one can hypothesize the continued extension of the research presented here will serve as one step in continuing the strive for the role of observing responses and conditioned reinforcement and how that effects the world in which we live. The research questions for this study are as follows: (1) That is, would the effect occur if the intervention consisted of an automated delivery rope rather than delivery by an adult, with or without a complete view of the confederate? (2) It is possible that an unfamiliar or a familiar adult also may play a critical role in the pairing of stimuli that occurs in the observational process? and (3) Providing automated delivery of the rope with no adult present would isolate the role of the peer confederate relative to the presence of an adult?               The purpose of this paper was to investigate the role of the experimenter in the delivery of reinforcement through observing responses as presented in previous work by Greer and Singer-Dudek (2008).  This involved a systematic extension to the research conducted by Greer and Singer-Dudek (2008) on the emergence of conditioned reinforcement from observation. Two experiments were conducted within this study. Experiment one was designed to study the role of the adult and automatic delivery of reinforcement as conditioned reinforcement from observation while experiment two addressed the role of a peer confederate and automatic delivery of reinforcement via observation. It is hypothesized, that by extending the work presented in Greer and Singer-Dudek’s (2008) study to include variations in the experimenter (i.e. deliver of reinforcement) in the conditioned reinforcement procedures through observing responses will provide data on the importance and key features the role of the experimenter has in such a reinforcement procedure. These results could then be utilized to aid in the distinction between ontogenetic and phylogenetic origins of the capability for observational conditioning in humans (Greer & Singer-Dudek, 2008). The following methods, results, and discussion will address the components of the first experiment.



Four children, aged three to five years old, served as participants. Thirty-six participants provided consent to participate, but only four were included in the study as participants. Four additional children were selected as peer confederates. All the participants were selected from a university run lab early childhood program that provided applied behavior analysis services and educational services to 98 children both typically developing and non-typically developing from ages two to six-years-old. Participants were recruited from a list of children who received full-time, part-time, or after hour services at the lab preschool. Participants were selected based on simple random sampling procedure. All participants recruited from the lab’s schools preschool program were previously diagnosed with either developmental delays, mild-to-moderate speech and language deficits, or both. For the sake of this experiment, all participants were not previously exposed to tokens used as conditioned reinforcers prior to the start of this study.

Participant A was a four-year-old girl who communicated using full sentences and had a previous diagnosis of developmental delay. Participant B was a five-year-old boy who communicated using four-word simple phrases and had a diagnosis of developmental delay and speech and language deficits. Participant C was a three-year-old boy who communicated using three-four word phrases and had a diagnosis of speech and language delay. Participant D, a three-year-old boy communicated using full sentences and had a previous diagnosis of developmental delay.

In addition to the participants, four peer confederates were selected to participate in the experiment during the conditioned reinforcement through observation phases of the experiment. Confederates one, two, three, and four were respectively paired with Participants A, B, C, and D. All confederates were selected from the same preschool program, but all were in different classes as compared to the participant each was paired with. Pairs were established in this way to ensure that little to no contact between participants and peer confederates would be available throughout the day. All peer confederates were highly unlikely to engage in outside interactions with the participants as each pair did not engage in the same class, play, or social activities (i.e. lunch, playground time, library, etc.).


The experiment took place in a university run lab school that provided applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy and education services to preschool aged children. The school utilized the Comprehensive Application of Behavior Analysis to Schooling (CABAS®) model (Greer, 1997). The CABAS® model is a learner driven science of teaching that can be applied to all children with or without disabilities. The school operates five days a week throughout the year with the exclusion of holidays.

The experiment was conducted inan experimental demonstration (also known as the “demo room”) room within the school. The demo room was small room fitted with a child sized table, four child sized chairs, a book shelf with office supplies, books, and miscellaneous items, a recording system (hidden within the bookshelf), and two observation windows. Due to the automatic delivery of reinforcement portion utilized in this study, a fake wall was constructed prior to the start of this study that housed a small box in which two clear tubes were attached. Upon this modification to the room, it was utilized for small group instruction as well as for experimental study procedures. This was to ensure that the setting was not novel to the participants and limited possible reactivity effects. All experimental sessions were conducted within this room. During the experiment, only the experimenter and the two children (i.e. participant and peer confederate) were present in the demo room and each session was video-recorded with a camcorder that displayed the elapsed time on the recording. During the observation phases of the study, an opaque partition was placed on the table between both children (i.e. the participant and peer confederate). The participant and peer confederate were positioned next to one another so that the participant could observe the delivery of the reinforcer, but not the tabletop stimuli and responding of the peer confederate.


In addition to the materials described in the experimental setting, a variety of materials were used for the conditioned reinforcement, learning, performance, and intervention tasks.

Small pieces of thin white rope, approximately three centimeters long, were used as the conditioned reinforcers. This was selected based on the little reinforcing qualities of the item itself as compared to some colorful, bright tokens as well as the weight of the rope (this was useful in the automatic delivery of reinforcment phase). All participants also had access to food items that were used as reinforcers in the experiment. Food items for all participants included crackers and cookies (i.e. cheese crackers, mini Oreos, or mini chocolate chip cookies). Clear translucent plastic cups were used during the study as a container for the dispense of food and rope during experimental sessions. An opaque partition was used during the observational intervention procedure in such a manner that the participant could see the peer confederate’s upper torso as well as the transparent cup (in order to view the delivery of the rope), but not the accuracy of the peer confederate’s responses.

During the automatic delivery of reinforcement phases, a simple instrument was devised to dispense the rope into the child’s cup without visibly observing an adult dispensing the rope. In order to do so, a false wall was devised where a 90-degree elbow shaped PVC socket was connected to the wall and attached to a clear polycarbonate tube. The clear tube was then situated in such a manner that it directly feed into the child’s 8 oz. clear cup. Little space (i.e. less than one centimeter) was available between the cup and the clear tube to ensure that the rope would fall directly into the cup upon being dispensed. In order for the adult present in the room to signal that a rope needed to be dispensed, the experimenter utilized a vocal signal. The assistant was given a script of performance and learning tasks. This aided in the detection of consequences that called for the delivery of reinforcement. Upon hearing the student’s response to the experimenter antecedent, a piece of rope would be dispensed (i.e. if the peer confederate answered correctly) or not be dispensed and rather given a correction from the adult present in the room.  To ensure the delivery of the item to the peer confederate rather than the participant’s cup, a cover was placed over the opening of the participant’s tube; this was only visible within the fake wall by the assistant dispensing the automatic reinforcer. This allowed for the adult present in the room to dispense the reinforcer in what seemed to be an automatic way (i.e. no physical person was visibly delivering the rope). A speaker system (already established within the space) was utilized during the observational intervention automatic delivery of reinforcement phase in order for the experimenter to present the antecedent and consequence (i.e. correct response) as needed based on the learning task and participant’s response.

For each performance task and or every learning task, different stimuli were needed for each participant. A performance task for each participant was selected from the skills in repertoire for each child to examine the rate of an already acquired task. Learning tasks were selected from each participants’ CABAS® International Curriculum and Inventory of Repertoires for Children from Preschool through Kindergarten (C-PIRK) record book (Greer, 2014). Stimuli for each task were based on the skills selected; therefore, some participants had similar stimuli because they focused on the same learning or performance task while others differed for the same reasons. See Table 1 for details on the stimuli used in each task (i.e. performance and learning).

Data sheets were used during all phases of this experiment. Graphs were also used to determine if decisions were required prior to mastery of the intervention. A camcorder and recording system was utilized to video record sessions. The recording system was established so that an outside observer could watch the session live in an attached office or view the recordings at a later time; recordings or live footage were used for interobserver agreement. Throughout the study, pens, data sheets, graphs, and clipboards were used for data collection.

Table 1

Descriptions and stimuli needed for performance and learning tasks. 

Participants Description of task and stimuli required
Participant A  
Performance Task Matching pictures of shapes using a lotto board consisting of six pictures and corresponding 2-D shape cards.
Learning Tasks (1) Pointing to common actions (i.e. sleeping, running, jumping, dancing, etc.) when the target stimulus and two non-exemplars were presented in a field of three choices. (2) Tracing alphabet letters (targets: c, l, i, h, and v) following the experimenter antecedent, “Trace the letter __.” (3) Identifying coins following the experimenter antecedent, “Give me the ____;” “Point to the _____;” or “What is the name of this coin?” (Targets include: nickel, penny, quarter, and dime)
Observational Learning Task (1) Matching Arabic numbers 1-10 using a lotto board consisting of six pictures and corresponding 2-D printed number cards. (2) Points to upper and lower case letters (a-z) located on printed page (i.e. on average 15 letter randomly assorted on a printed page in multiple fonts and colors). (3) Discriminates between pictures and text by pointing to words and pictures in early readers following the experimenter antecedent, “Find the word/picture”; “Show me/Where is the word/picture?”
Participant B
Performance Task Visually matching novel identical pictures with other rotating non-exemplars (i.e. 2-D to 2-D matching) using pictures of school items.
Learning Tasks (1) Identifying coins following the experimenter antecedent, “Give me/point to/find _____.” (Targets include: nickel, penny, quarter, and dime) (2) Identifying community helpers (i.e. lifeguard, teacher, casher, painter, and mechanic) following experimenter antecedent, “Point to the _____.” (3) Vocally tacting common emotions using picture cards (e.g. happy, sad, scared, etc.).
Observational Learning Task (1) Textually responding to sight words presented on index cards. Targets included: the, and, come, made, and I. (2) Visually matching novel identical picture with other rotating non-exemplars (i.e. 2-D to 2-D matching) using pictures of items in the home. (3) Intraverbal counting from the numbers 1-20.
Participant C
Performance Task Vocally identifying the gender of photos of men and women using real life photos of unfamiliar adults.
Learning Tasks (1) Visually matches colors (i.e. red, blue, green, brown, and yellow) when presented with novel 2-D stimuli across irrelevant dimensions (non-identical) following experimenter antecedent (e.g. “Match blue with blue.”). (2) Discriminates between pictures and text by pointing to words and pictures in early readers following the experimenter antecedent, “Find the word/picture”; “Show me/Where is the word/picture?” (3) Selects numbers using tile number (0-10) when presented with the experimenter antecedent “Give me/point to/find _____.”
Observational Learning Task (1) Matching 2-D to 2-D pictures of items found in the home. Targets included: table, chair, rug, TV, and lamp. (2) Intraverbal counting from the numbers 1-10. (3) Matching 2-D picture to 3-D objects in a field of three.
Participant D
Performance Task Discriminates between pictures and text by pointing to words and pictures in early readers following the experimenter antecedent, “Find the word/picture”; “Show me/Where is the word/picture?”
Learning Tasks (1) Identifying community helpers (i.e. lifeguard, teacher, casher, painter, and mechanic) following experimenter antecedent, “Point to the _____.” (2) Points to upper and lower case letters (a-z) located on printed page (i.e. on average 15 letter randomly assorted on a printed page in multiple fonts and colors). (3) Matches Arabic numbers 0-10 on a number line.
Observational Learning Task (1) Matching uppercase letters in a field of three exemplars. Targets included: B, H, I, E, and D. (2) Matching 2-D picture to 3-D objects in a field of three exemplars. (3) Points to his first name in a field of three.

Experimental Design

This study utilized a design and procedures similar to those described in Greer and Singer-Dudek’s (2008) experiment. For the experiment presented here, a counterbalanced reversal design within a pre-and post-intervention design was utilized. This design was selected based on the ability to test for changes in the reinforcing effects of the role of the experimenter in the delivery of conditioned reinforcement from observing. A counterbalanced pre-and post-intervention reversal design for one performance task was implemented as a condition to determine the reinforcing effects of rope compared to previously established reinforcers (i.e. food items) as well as to examine the effects of the different delivery of reinforcer methods. An observational conditioning intervention was then utilized in another reversal condition designated as ABABCB (Participants A and C) or BABACA (Participant B and D). This reversal design utilized in the observational intervention condition involved each participant observing the peer confederates they were paired with receive the neutral stimuli (i.e. rope) while being denied those same stimuli with varying methods of reinforcer delivery. Lastly, pre-and post-intervention tests for learning tasks that were not originally in each of the participants’ repertoires were conducted. The four participants were assigned to pairs. Pairs were selected based on the probability of contact each would have with the selected participants. A summary of steps in the experiment included the following: pre-observational intervention conditions, reversal observational intervention conditions involving alternating phases of delivery of reinforcement between learning and performance tasks, and post-observational intervention conditions.

Dependent Measures and Response Measurement

Dependent variables in this study included the number of correct and incorrect responses per minute during pre-and post-observational interventions for both learning and performance tasks as well as the number of correct responses during the intervention condition to test the effectiveness of rope as compared to food reinforcers. Data were collected for the performance task in one minute timed 10-trial sessions. In these timed tasks, the experimenter started the timer when the antecedent for the first trial was delivered and stopped the timer following the participant’s last response (i.e. after the tenth presentation). The time that elapsed between the first participant’s response and his/her last response was documented on the data collection form and used to determine the rate of correct or incorrect responses. The rate of correct/incorrect responses was determined by dividing the number of correct/incorrect responses by the total amount of time documented. Data collections for the learning tasks included trials that were not timed and were ran using 20-trial sessions. The observational intervention consisted of 10-trial sessions. During all sessions, participant responses were recorded by the experimenter as either correct or incorrect by using a plus or minus symbol and were graphed following each session.

Within this experiment, data were collected on a data sheet that indicated the correct and incorrect responses emitted by the participants to the performance task and learning tasks. The addition or rate as measure was included on the data sheet used during the performance task. All sessions were video recorded to measure the reliability of trials presented by the experimenter. This is described in more detail within the measurement reliability section of this paper. On average, all conditions were conducted (i.e. the performance task and learning tasks as well as the observational intervention) one to three sessions each day, four days per week.

Independent Measures

An observational intervention was utilized as the independent variable of this study. Within this intervention, conditioned reinforcement for observation was implemented in different conditions where the delivery of the reinforcement (i.e. the role of the experimenter) was varied across conditions. Different conditions of the observational intervention consisted of either: (1) the adult experimenter delivering the reinforcer (i.e. rope) based on each trial of the performance or learning task; (2) the automatic delivery of the reinforcer (i.e. rope) based on each trial of the performance task or learning tasks; or (3) the combination of both the adult present and the automatic delivery the reinforcer (i.e. rope) based on each trial of the performance or learning task. During the observational intervention, all reinforcement was delivered to the peer confederates based on correct responding. This was implemented in order to determine the establishment of conditioned reinforcement for participants in regards to a previously neutral stimuli (i.e. rope) following the observational intervention.

During the observational intervention, each participant was able to observe the presentation of the stimuli by the experimenter, his/her own response, the delivery of the piece of rope into the peer confederate’s cup, a possible occurrence of facial expressions or upper torso body language (i.e. peer confederate reactions), and the absence of delivery of the rope in his/her own cup. Termination of the observational intervention was set at two consecutive sessions during or after the participants made a vocal request for the rope or delivery of reinforcement and or physically made an attempt to take or grasp the rope from the peer confederate’s cup. The trial session continued until each participant repeatedly manded for or attempted to obtain the rope from the peer confederate’s cup. The experimenter in the demo room during this condition blocked the participant’s attempt to take the rope, and the experimenter ignored any vocal requests such as “Where’s mine?” During the automatic delivery of reinforcement, the second unfamiliar adult seated in the corner of the room was instructed to follow the same procedures if the participants displayed the same behaviors.

Based on the results of the Greer and Singer-Dudek’s (2008) study in which 50% of their participants began to emit a descending trend in correct responding towards the end of the intervention condition and to account for the possibility that participants would not vocally or physically mand for the rope, an additional termination criteria was established. A decision was made to require a minimum of eight sessions of the observational intervention prior to deciding to continue or terminate the intervention. If after the eighth session, a participant had not manded (i.e. via vocally or physically) for the rope, the participant’s trend of correct responding was analyzed. If the trend indicated a descending trend and the participant had not yet manded for the rope, his or her intervention session was deemed complete. If the participant only met one of the two previously listed criteria for termination, a decision was made to continue for an additional four session (i.e. 3 data paths) in order to reassess the trend in the data and or the lack of mands for the rope. The decision to terminate the observational intervention (not following the original criteria) was made on an individual basis.

Measurement Reliability

Interobserver agreement (IOA) was collected by a second observer who was trained to identify the participant’s correct and incorrect responses on both performance and learning tasks prior to the start of the study. Interobserver agreement (IOA) was collected in minimum of 75% of all pre-and post-probes through the live video footage or through the use of video recorded sessions. IOA for correct/incorrect responses during performance, learning, and observational intervention conditions was assessed. The IOA scores were determined by dividing the total number of paired observer agreements by the total numbers of agreements plus disagreements and then multiplying that number by 100%. In order to assess procedural fidelity, theTeacher Performance Rate and Accuracy (TPRA) observation form was utilized (Ross, Singer-Dudek, & Greer, 2005).  The TPRA was created as a means to measure treatment accuracy and procedural fidelity.


Informed Consent and Assent. Prior to the start of the study, consent from parents and or guardians was established. Written consent was obtained for each participant, from at least one parent or guardian. To obtain consent, the experimenter met with the parent/guardian in person or over the phone to review the research project and consent information. For any meeting that occurred over the phone, a copy of the consent was sent to the parent/guardian prior to the established call, so parents could refer to it during the discussion.

Pre-Intervention Condition.  A reversal design was utilized in this condition to compare performance and learning behavior of all four participants. Performance behavior was defined as behavior that was already in a participant’s repertoire (i.e. already acquired). Learning behavior was defined as new behavior not yet acquired or in the participant’s repertoire. All tasks were selected prior to the start of this condition. During this condition, a reversal design was implemented by alternating conditions in which correct responses were followed by the delivery of either food reinforcers or pieces of rope in response to the predetermined performance task (see Table 1). During the pre-intervention condition, the experimenter did not provide verbal reinforcement such as approvals or praise for correct responding nor did they provide correct responses for any incorrect responses emitted by the participants in the performance tasks.

Each performance task session consisted of ten timed trials. During these trials the experimenter presented the stimuli and antecedent if necessary (see Table 1) and pending correct responding delivered only the item identified in the phase (i.e. food or rope) into the participant’s clear cup that was located on the table in front of the participant. If the participant emitted an incorrect response the experimenter did not provide a consequence, she simply removed the stimuli and presented the next trial. Each session of ten trials was timed in order to determine the rate of responding per minute. Sessions in the pre-intervention performance task condition continued until the following criteria was met: 1) the participant’s data indicated that when followed by the delivery of the food reinforcer, the performance of the task showed little variability (i.e. no overlap in the rates of correct and incorrect responding) and a rate of incorrect was consistently close to zero; and 2) the rope did not reinforce correct responses (i.e. no increase observed in correct responding following the delivery of pieces of rope).

Similar procedures were utilized for the sessions conducted for learning tasks within the pre-intervention condition. Unlike the performance task, the sessions for learning tasks were untimed due to the lack of fluency expected on a new skill not yet acquired. During learning task trials the experimenter followed the same procedures stated above. She presented the stimuli and antecedent if necessary (see Table 1) and pending correct responding delivered a piece of rope into the participant’s clear cup that was located on the table in front of the participant. If the participant emitted an incorrect response, the experimenter provided a consequence in the form of the correct response. Sessions in the pre-intervention learning tasks condition continued until the data indicated stable participant responding for four or more data paths. Once criteria were established on both the performance task and learning tasks, the observational intervention was introduced.

Observational Intervention. Utilizing a reversal design counterbalanced between pairs of participants, this condition was used to determine the effects of the delivery of reinforcement on the acquisition of reinforcement for a previously unconditioned reinforcer (i.e. pieces of rope). In this condition, new performance tasks were utilized (see Table 1) with each participant and peer confederate pair. All new performance tasks included tasks that both children had previously mastered as indicated by each child’s C-PIRK. This was established so that the effects of the delivery of the reinforcer on the acquisition of conditioned reinforcement could be determined. The different conditions of the observational intervention as described in the independent measures section of this paper established for pairs of participants were as followed, Participants A and C an ABABCB reversal was utilized and for Participants B and D a BABACA design was implemented. Phase A consisted of the adult experimenter serving as the deliver of reinforcement (i.e. pieces of rope). Phase B tested the effects of an automatic delivery of reinforcement whereas the adult experimenter was not in the room. In order to assist the children as well as provide safety measures due to the participants’ ages, an unfamiliar adult was present in the corner of the demo room during this condition, but all antecedents and consequences came from an automatic message via speakers or the use of the apparatus designed to deliver the pieces of rope. Phase C tested the effects of an automatic delivery of the reinforcer while the experimenter was present in the room but was not delivering the reinforcer herself as in Phase A.

During this condition, the pairs of children (pre-determined) were seated next to one another with an opaque partition placed between the participant and his or her peer confederate. In all phases of the intervention, pieces of rope served as consequences of correct responding and were delivered only to the peer confederate paired with the participant. Participants could only observe the delivery of reinforcement during these sessions, not the accuracy of the peer confederate’s responding. If the peer confederate responded correctly he/she was delivered the piece of rope according to the current phase (i.e. by the experimenter directly, automatically, or automatically with the experimenter present). If the participant answered correctly he/she did not receive the rope nor did he/she receive reinforcement via praise or approval. If the participant did not respond within three seconds of the antecedent, the experimenter moved to the next trial. Trials were established in such a manner that the peer confederate never emitted incorrect responses or no responses, rather he/she always performed correctly and received the rope. The same performance task that was presented to the participant was also presented to his/her peer confederate (see Table 1). Each phase in this condition was terminated based on pre-established criteria. A detailed description of this criteria can be found in the intendent measures section of this paper. Upon meeting criteria, the pair would move onto the next phase within the observational intervention and a new performance task was introduced (see Table 1) and continued following the same procedures listed above. The same procedures were utilized until all three observational intervention performance tasks were completed.

Post-Intervention Condition.  Following the observational interventionthe post-intervention condition was implemented.  This condition was run in the same manner as the pre-intervention condition procedures described above whereas the predetermined performance and learning tasks were reintroduced. A reversal design was again utilized in this condition to compare performance and learning behavior of all four participants where participants were either presented a piece or rope or preferred food for all correct responding according to the phase established. The performance task was presented for each participant for the equal number of sessions as the pre-intervention condition. This was established to demonstrate the continued reinforcement effects of the rope when paralleled to the food items in the alternating conditions. During the implementation of the learning task, all correct responses were consequated with the delivery of only a piece of rope. Reintroduced learning tasks were presented until the data showed that the participant responded correctly to a minimum of 90% accuracy across two consecutive sessions per learning task or stable responding after a minimum of eight sessions.


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