Can you give some practical examples of UMO's, CMO, CMO-T, CMO-P, CMO-R etc.? Also the punishing side of the MO's?

- Asked by Anonymous

I haven’t yet discussed all the motivating operations (MOs) on this blog, so now, in response to your question is as good a time as any.  I always have to go back to the 'White book' for examples of these and I’ll try to post similar or more personal examples.

As a review, MOs are fourth contingency to a behaviour.  They are the conditions that make us want the reinforcer even more (i.e., motivation).  There are times when the cue or means (i.e., discriminative stimulus) to behave are present, but we don’t act on them because the usual reinforcer is not needed/wanted.  I often use toileting as an example:

Motivating operation: Bladder is full, discomfort

Discriminative stimulus: toilet nearby

Behaviour: use the toilet

Consequence: Bladder is empty, return to a comfortable state (negative reinforcement).

We are in the presence of toilets many times in our day, but we don’t go using every one we see.  We only use the toilet when relief (the reinforcer) is needed. Therefore, the MO condition for using the toilet is that we require a full bladder.

The discomfort of a full bladder is one example of a unconditioned motivating operation (UMO).  UMOs are the biological conditions inherent in all humans that motivate our behaviour for survival purposes. They also include pain, hunger, thirst, sleep, oxygen, temperature, boredom and sex.  If you are deprived of food, water, sleep, oxygen, sex, activity or need heat or cold, you are more likely to engage in behaviours that offer you these things as reinforcers.

MOs can also be learned or conditioned based on our past experiences. These are referred to as conditioned motivating operations (CMO) of which there are a few types:

1) Surrogate CMO (CMO-S) occurs when a neutral stimuli is paired with one of the UMOs.  Later, this stimuli takes on the same behaviour altering effects as the UMO when the UMO is not present.  According to Cooper et al., (2007) the evidence for this effect is not strong, as it would seem disadvantageous to humans to act as though survival is being threatened when it is not.  I suppose my best example would be when an object or condition that has been associated with pain in the past is present (alone) and motivates the person to seek out a remedy.  Perhaps this is the learning behind psychosomatic symptoms?

2) Reflexive CMO (CMO-R) are those conditions or items that precede an aversive event; thus making escape or avoidance highly reinforcing. They signal to us that bad things could or are about to happen. The example I often use is the “punishing” teacher, boss or other adult in charge. In the presence of this person you “can’t seem to do anything right” and are constantly punished. Because of this, you want to spend less time with this person. Soon the environment(s) associated with this person seem to take on these aversive qualities and you avoid going anywhere near where this person might be.  Even hearing their voice down the hallway may signal you to take an early lunch and avoid running into them (and therefore avoid possible punishment).  

CMO-Rs explains me taking a different route to work if my previous route was associated with delays and a frustrating driving experience. This is also why I ask what the relationship is like between students and their teachers, parents etc. and their history with reinforcement vs. punishment. Because if the MO for escape/avoidance is high we have to undo that learning/association.

3) Transitive CMOs (CMO-T) are conditions or stimulus that make us want/need another stimulus.  The best example of CMO-T are the conditions we find ourselves in when we ask for help or engage in problem solving behaviours.  Michael (1982) used the example of the electrician and his apprentice working away.  The electrician goes to use a screwdriver but it does not fit.  He then asks his apprentice for another screwdriver.  The condition of the screwdriver not fitting is the CMO-T which makes getting one that does fit more reinforcing. The behaviour of asking for another screwdriver is thus demonstrated and the apprentice reinforces that behaviour by delivering a screwdriver that works.  The electrician only asked for the screwdriver when the condition called for it even though he had the means to ask (i.e., someone present to ask for help) throughout the day.

I have often wondered if advertising works on the principle of CMO-T. Coupons and sales offering us better deals can certainly convince or motivate us into needing or wanting the product being marketed. I do this all the time when I’m grocery shopping.  In many cases, had it not been for a deal on the name brand items, I probably would have chosen the generic brand.

Many of the MO conditions have to also be considered in order for punishment to be effective.  If you’re threatening to take something away from me if I engage in a certain behaviour, you better be sure that I am deprived of that thing otherwise, I might not care (and thus, not really punishment). For example, loss of computer and TV privileges is a common disciplinary action. This will only work as punishment if in fact the person has had very little TV or computer time to begin with.  If they have been watching TV or playing on the computer all day, your taking away of these things in the evening because they left their dishes downstairs may have very little effect on these behaviours tomorrow and the next day.

Not considering the MO for either a reinforcer or a punisher is often, in my opinion, to blame for many failed discipline or reward-based behaviour management approaches.  People have to want or care about what you’re giving and/or taking away from them if you hope to have any effect on the behaviour(s) you are targeting.  

Okay…think I have brushed up on my MOs for the next little while.  This was a lengthy post/answer to your question but I believe an explanation plus examples are necessary for understanding these behaviour principles. What is most important to know is when/how MOs are present and how they alter the value of a consequence and the frequency of a behaviour vs. which type of MO/CMO it is.


Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., & Heward, W.L. (2007).  Applied behaviour analysis (2nd ed.).  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Michael, J.  (1982).  Distinguishing between discriminative and motivational functions of stimuli.  Journal of Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 37, 149-155.

What examples do you have? 


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