College of Psychology: Faculty Articles


The Momentum of Human Behavior in a Natural Setting

Document Type


Publication Date



Response Rate; Resistance To Change; Behavioral Momentum; Variable-Interval Schedules; Variable-Time Schedules; Response-Reinforcer Contingencies; Stimulus-Reinforcer Relations; Sorting Behavior; Humans

Publication Title

Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior








Adults with mental retardation in a group home received popcorn or coffee reinforcers for sorting plastic dinnerware. In Part 1 of the experiment, reinforcers were dispensed according to a variable-interval 60-s schedule for sorting dinnerware of one color and according to a variable-interval 240-s schedule for sorting dinnerware of a different color in successive components of a multiple schedule. Sorting rates were similar in baseline, but when a video program was shown concurrently, sorting of dinnerware was more resistant to distraction when correlated with a higher rate of reinforcement. In Part 2 of the experiment, popcorn or coffee reinforcers were contingent upon sorting both colors of dinnerware according to variable-interval 60-s schedules, but additional reinforcers were given independently of sorting according to a variable-time 30-s schedule during one dinnerware-color component. Baseline sorting rate was lower but resistance to distraction by the video program was greater in the component with additional variable-time reinforcers. These results demonstrate that resistance to distraction depends on the rate of reinforcers obtained in the presence of component stimuli but is independent of baseline response rates and response-reinforcer contingencies. Moreover, these results are similar to those obtained in laboratory studies with pigeons, demonstrating that the determination of resistance to change by stimulus-reinforcer relations is not confined to controlled laboratory settings or unique to the pigeon.