Replacing relative reinforcing efficacy with behavioral economic demand curves

Matthew W. Johnson, Warren K. Bickel

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

90 Scopus citations


Relative reinforcing efficacy refers to the behavior-strengthening or maintaining property of a reinforcer when compared to that of another reinforcer. Traditional measures of relative reinforcing efficacy sometimes have led to discordant results across and within studies. By contrast, previous investigations have found traditional measures to be congruent with behavioral economic measures, which provide a framework for integrating the discordant results. This study tested whether the previously demonstrated congruence between traditional relative reinforcing efficacy measures and behavioral economic demand curve measures is sufficiently robust to persist when demand for one reinforcer is altered. Cigarette smokers pulled plungers for cigarettes or two magnitudes of money on progressive-ratio schedules that increased the response requirement across sessions. Demand for the two different reinforcers was assessed in single-schedule and concurrent-schedule sessions. Demand curve measures P max and O max correlated significantly with traditional measures of breakpoint and peak response rate, respectively. Relative locations of demand curves for money and cigarettes under single schedules predicted preference in concurrent schedules in most cases. Although measures of relative reinforcing efficacy for money changed with money magnitude, the congruence between traditional and behavioral economic measures remained intact. This robust congruence supports the proposal that demand curves should replace measures of relative reinforcing efficacy. The demand curve analysis illustrates why concordance between traditional measures is expected under some experimental conditions but not others.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)73-93
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of the experimental analysis of behavior
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2006


  • Behavioral economics
  • Cigarette smokers
  • Demand curves
  • Humans
  • Lindsley plunger pulls
  • Reinforcer efficacy
  • Relative reinforcing efficacy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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