College of Psychology: Faculty Articles


Effects of Reinforcer Rate and Reinforcer Quality on Time Allocation: Extensions of Matching Theory to Educational Settings

Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 1992


Matching Theory; Choice; Reinforcer Quality; Reinforcer Rate; Concurrent Schedules

Publication Title

Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis








We examined how 3 special education students allocated their responding across two concurrently available tasks associated with unequal rates and equal versus unequal qualities of reinforcement. The students completed math problems from two alternative sets on concurrent variable-interval (VI) 30-s VI 120-s schedules of reinforcement. During the equal-quality reinforcer condition, high-quality (nickels) and low-quality items (“program money” in the school's token economy) were alternated across sessions as the reinforcer for both sets of problems. During the unequal-quality reinforcer condition, the low-quality reinforcer was used for the set of problems on the VI 30-s schedule, and the high-quality reinforcer was used for the set of problems on the VI 120-s schedule. Equal- and unequal-quality reinforcer conditions were alternated using a reversal design. Results showed that sensitivity to the features of the VI reinforcement schedules developed only after the reinforcement intervals were signaled through countdown timers. Thereafter, when reinforcer quality was equal, the time allocated to concurrent response alternatives was approximately proportional to obtained reinforcement, as predicted by the matching law. However the matching relation was disrupted when, as occurs in most natural choice situations, the quality of the reinforcers differed across the response options.