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Using 3 Preference Assessments to Motivate Individuals

Using Preference Assessments to Motivate Individuals 

Motivation is vital within the science of applied behavior analysis (ABA) because the interest of an individual is used as a strategy to motivate them to accomplish tasks which may not be accomplished (whether that’s due to a skill deficit, preference, or some other reason). As human beings, we all like different things. We are all naturally motivated by primary reinforcers (e.g., things that do not need to be learned such as food, water and warmth) as well as secondary reinforcers (which vary across individuals but may include money, tangible items, and social behavior). Some people may complete a task to earn a meal, some may attend work daily so that they can earn money to buy an item (large or small), and some may tell a joke to gain the attention of another individual.  

To understand an individual’s preferences and/or potential reinforcers, we can conduct a preference assessment. There are many different types of preference assessments and ways to conduct them. For example, if you know an individual well, you may be able to determine their most likely preferences and can use a trial-based method while an individual that is brand new to you may require an interview or an opportunity to engage with a large amount of items or activities available. A few of the simple preference assessments that we can identify these potential reinforcers include: 

  • Open-ended Interview- These can be tailored to the individual by asking them (or someone who knows them well) about their preferences by using open-ended questions, multiple choice, or through ranking choices.  
  • Structured Interview- Structured interviews such as the Reinforcer Assessment for Individuals with Severe Disabilities (RAISD) can be used with the individual or someone who knows them well. They will provide a list of items or activities and the one being interviewed can identify the known preferences. 
  • Free Operant Observation- The interviewer can observe the individual in their natural environment and record what items the individual touches, plays with, or gazes at along with the duration of these interactions.  

An array of trial-based preference assessments also exist which are typically more formal in nature. A few of these trial-based preference assessments include Single-stimulus, Paired-stimulus, Multiple-stimulus-with-replacement (MSW), and Multiple-stimulus-without-replacement (MSWO). We suggest seeking support to learn how to conduct these preference assessments since there are many factors that should be considered to match the individual with the most effective preference assessment such as acquired skills, skill deficits, the likelihood satiation (i.e., supplying an excess amount of access to an item or activity, reducing the likelihood that it remains motivating), the category of items that should be used, the likelihood of provoking challenging behavior, and other factors.   

Graff and Karsten (2012) identified top 5 most common categories of items used by Board-Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBA) and Board-Certified Assistant Behavior Analysts (BCaBA) in preference assessments which included social praise, tokens, breaks, toys, and edibles. Preference assessments may be conducted full-scale (e.g., using multiple stimuli and presenting items on repeated trials in the same sitting) or as mini assessments (e.g., offering a choice between two or more items immediately before a teaching session). They can also be conducted on various time schedules such as hourly, multiple times per day, or weekly to name a few. 

The two most important things to remember with preference assessments is: 1) just because someone likes an item or activity, it does not make it a reinforcer, meaning that they are willing to do specific tasks to earn it and 2) preferences can change at any point or last for any period of time. For that reason, you will need to create many opportunities for motivation with the individual you are working with.   


Graff, R. B. & Karsten, A. M. (2012). Assessing preferences of individuals with developmental disabilities: a survey of current practices. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 5(2), 37-48.  Reinforcer Assessment for Individuals with Severe Disabilities (RAISD): 

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