Economic demand and essential value

Psychol Rev. 2008 Jan;115(1):186-98. doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.115.1.186.


The strength of a rat's eating reflex correlates with hunger level when strength is measured by the response frequency that precedes eating (B. F. Skinner, 1932a, 1932b). On the basis of this finding, Skinner argued response frequency could index reflex strength. Subsequent work documented difficulties with this notion because responding was affected not only by the strengthening properties of the reinforcer but also by the rate-shaping effects of the schedule. This article obviates this problem by measuring strength via methods from behavioral economics. This approach uses demand curves to map how reinforcer consumption changes with changes in the "price" different ratio schedules impose. An exponential equation is used to model these demand curves. The value of this exponential's rate constant is used to scale the strength or essential value of a reinforcer, independent of the scalar dimensions of the reinforcer. Essential value determines the consumption level to be expected at particular prices and the response level that will occur to support that consumption. This approach permits comparing reinforcers that differ in kind, contributing toward the goal of scaling reinforcer value.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Economics
  • Humans
  • Learning*
  • Models, Psychological*
  • Psychological Theory*