The case for intrinsic motivation in ABA.

By Cassi Breaux, M.A., M.S., BCBA, LBA | Manager of Educational Content Development

Friday, October 23, 2020

Intrinsic motivation. Gah! I said it. I said a no-no word in the ABA world. The funny thing is, intrinsic motivation is used so often in my original fields of psychology and education that it is sometimes really hard to stop myself from using it in ABA. In times where I have seen the faces of aghast colleagues when I have said it, I hurry to defend the use of the term intrinsic motivation before they throw the word “mentalistic” at me. Below is my defense of the word intrinsic motivation.

Since most contingencies in ABA are extrinsic, or external rewards, why should ABA practitioners care about intrinsic motivation? My argument is that we actually do care about intrinsic motivation, we just call it something different. Intrinsically motivated behaviors are themselves enjoyable, purposive, and provide sufficient reason to persist (Pinder, 2011). This closely describes what practitioners in ABA might call automatic reinforcement. Automatic reinforcement “occurs independent of social mediation of others” and “is assumed when a behavior persists in the absence of any known reinforcer” (Cooper,  Heron, & Heward, 2020, p. 262).

Now here is where the definitions diverge. When I say the word intrinsic motivation, I think of an artist self-directing their own creative process to lead them to the most creative product, instead of being paid to create a specific type of piece within parameters. Creating their own piece, as directed outside of external motivation, would serve as its own reward. There could be unforeseen contingencies here, like verbal praise from others, emotive responses, proud expressions from the artist’s parents. The artist may not create completely devoid of external reinforcement, but the process and execution may be largely intrinsically motivated. When I think of automatic reinforcement, I think of self-stimulatory behaviors or of our base fives senses. Cooper et. al (2020) describes automatic reinforcement as either a hurdle to overcome it or as a catch-all bucket for any contingency we can’t otherwise describe or alter. I could probably write an entire blog post about the inherent ableism present in the idea that intrinsic motivation, which as described above sounds important to nurture so that someone can give their best creative energy to the world, is reserved for the neurotypical and developmental typical. Automatic reinforcement, described above as the primitive experience of our five senses, is used in a field that primarily serves those that are neurodiverse and/or have othering learning needs. That aside, my argument would be that as practitioners it is our duty to assume that every client that we work with has a wealth of intrinsic motivation and work with our clients to create contingencies that tap into that intrinsic motivation.

You may be thinking that we do tap into intrinsic motivation through preference assessments. This is absolutely true. Most practitioners gather information about preferences and use that to create external motivation for a client to perform low-preference tasks. The reframe I would invite is that we use information gathered from preference assessments and our observations of our client to make our practices more client-centered. When I talk about assent and reformed-ABA, oftentimes the push back is “What about clients who are young/ less vocal or less verbal/ can’t tell us?” This is where intrinsic motivation is important. My argument would be that all clients can tell us what is important to them in that setting and in that moment. It is our job to be flexible practitioners, willing to abandon or alter our plans to follow what is intrinsically motivating our clients in that moment and setting. So our client comes into the clinic room and runs to the Lego bin? We take our goal of tacting shapes and make some shapes out of Legos instead of gaining access to Legos at the end of tacting flash cards. I consider it the flip side of the manipulation of MOs through deprivation and satiation. Instead of forcing someone to do what we want by depriving them of the things they are motivated by unless they do what we want, we build our program and shift our own behaviors around their motivations.  

When we assume that all clients have intrinsic motivation, instead of just assuming that some behaviors are automatically reinforced, we can build a data-based and client-centered program that is sensitive to the ever-changing needs of a human being. For a client who is intrinsically motivated by trains (see how that is less ableist than saying a client who has restricted interests or obsessions with trains?) it can look like creating materials with trains. We count trains by connecting them. Maybe we label the trains with their numbers. We don’t need to deprive to engage clients, because we are taking our data on intrinsic motivation and guiding our own behavior with it. 

Maybe you are already doing this. If so, AWESOME, and the next steps are how you build on this concept further. If this seems new, maybe you want to learn more. There is SO much to say here that we have created 8 hours of learning CEUs that are available. There are 5 ethics and 3 supervision learning CEUs on dignity, assent, and supervising with assent, as well as power in decision-making and assent in telehealth. CR Institute has bundled these trainings in order to make them even easier for you to access (here)! Kristin Smith, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA also wrote a terrific blog that is great for data collection for assent/dignity behaviors.

For me, awareness and reflection on intrinsic motivation has been an extension of the way that Calkin (2002) describes inner behavior. People can, and do, chart their own inner behaviors, as evidenced by the 1,600 standard celeration charts with inner behavior that Calkin cited in 2002. She even differentiates these inner behaviors as feelings, thoughts, urges, and attitudes (Calkin, 2009)!  Gasp! If inner behavior can be quantified, with the person’s assent and participation, then we should feel comfortable collecting data on assent withdrawal and observable behaviors that suggest environmental conditions may be aversive. With this data we can make an educated prediction of the inner behavior or experience of our clients and change our behavior and the environment to be more palatable. Fabrizio (2012) explained it beautifully, “When we allow children to escape from instruction, we get valuable information to help us improve our teaching and provide a more successful learning environment.  When teaching is good, learners are reinforced by success and want to keep going.”

When we combine asking for assent, measuring inner behavior, and incorporating intrinsic motivation, we are providing a compassionate and progressive therapeutic relationship and environment for our learners. It is my sincere hope that intrinsic motivation feels less like a dirty word than when you started reading this blog. Instead, maybe it feels like an invitation to build client-based programs based on the intrinsic motivations, or the wants, needs, and desires of our clients.


About the Author
Cassi Breaux, M.A., M.S., BCBA, LBA
CentralReach Manager of Educational Content Development

Cassi Breaux is a CR Institute content creator and the CentralReach Manager of Educational Content Development. She has been in the behavior field for more than 15 years, most notably as a special education teacher and behavior specialist for NYC public schools, a tech and BCBA in private clinics, and a private practice owner. Her goal is to focus on implicit bias reflection behaviors, both in herself and others, and strives to create education spaces that respect both gender and sexual diversity and minimize the implicit ableism in ABA.


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