Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Dr. Richard W. Malott

Second Advisor

Dr. Stephanie Peterson

Third Advisor

Dr. Ron Van Houten

Fourth Advisor

Dr. Steven Ragotzy


Learned reinforcers, conditioned reinforcers, secondary reinforcers, behavior analysis, autism, approval


Approval does not function as a powerful reinforcer for many children with autism, making it difficult to reinforce appropriate behavior in a functional and consistent manner. The current study first assessed the effects of establishing approval (“Nice,” accompanied by a smile and nod) and nonsense words as discriminative stimuli, with the intent that they might also become learned reinforcers. We conducted several experiments to assess the effectiveness of approval as a reinforcer, including tests on learning new responses (receptive, expressive, freeoperant, and simple simultaneous discriminations) and tests on the performance of previously mastered responses (receptive and expressive responses). Despite the effectiveness of the approval statement as a discriminative stimulus, it seemed to act as a very weak reinforcer, at best. We then assessed the effects of response-contingent pairings on the establishment of a learned reinforcer. For the current participant, the response-contingent pairing method seemed to be an effective method for establishing a learned reinforcer. Using this procedure, we were able to maintain the value of the learned reinforcer, as long as it continued to be paired with an unlearned reinforcer contingent on another response.

Access Setting

Dissertation-Open Access