Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Behavioral momentum and the Law of Effect

John A. Nevin a1 and Randolph C. Grace a2
a1 Department of Psychology, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH 03824
a2 Department of Psychology, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand


In the metaphor of behavioral momentum, the rate of a free operant in the presence of a discriminative stimulus is analogous to the velocity of a moving body, and resistance to change measures an aspect of behavior that is analogous to its inertial mass. An extension of the metaphor suggests that preference measures an analog to the gravitational mass of that body. The independent functions relating resistance to change and preference to the conditions of reinforcement may be construed as convergent measures of a single construct, analogous to physical mass, that represents the effects of a history of exposure to the signaled conditions of reinforcement and that unifies the traditionally separate notions of the strength of learning and the value of incentives. Research guided by the momentum metaphor encompasses the effects of reinforcement on response rate, resistance to change, and preference and has implications for clinical interventions, drug addiction, and self-control. In addition, its principles can be seen as a modern, quantitative version of Thorndike's (1911) Law of Effect, providing a new perspective on some of the challenges to his postulation of strengthening by reinforcement.

Key Words: behavioral momentum; clinical interventions; drug addiction; preference; reinforcement; resistance to change; response strength; self-control.