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Unit price as a useful metric in analyzing effects of reinforcer magnitude.

By R J DeGrandpre, W K Bickel, J R Hughes, M P Layng and G Badger


In this paper, we applied the behavioral-economic concept of unit price to the study of reinforcer magnitude in an attempt to provide a consistent account of the effects of reinforcer magnitude on behavior. Recent research in the experimental analysis of behavior and in behavioral pharmacology suggests that reinforcer magnitude interacts with the schedule of reinforcement to determine response rate and total consumption. The utility of the unit-price concept thus stems from its ability to quantify this interaction as a cost-benefit ratio (i.e., unit price = characteristics of the schedule of reinforcement divided by magnitude of reinforcement). Research employing the unit-price concept has shown that as unit price increases, a positively decelerating function exists for consumption (i.e., a function with an increasingly negative slope, when plotted on log coordinates) and a bitonic function exists for response rate. Based on these findings, the present analysis applied the unit-price concept to those studies of reinforcer magnitude and drug self-administration that examined the effects of reinforcer magnitude on response rate using simple schedules of reinforcement (e.g., fixed-ratio schedule). This resulted in three findings: (a) Reinforcer-magnitude manipulations and schedule manipulations interact in a manner that can be quantified in terms of unit price as benefit and cost factors, respectively; (b) different reinforcer-magnitude manipulations are functionally interchangeable as benefit factors in the unit-price ratio; and (c) these conclusions appear warranted despite the differences in reinforcers (food or drug), species (dogs, monkeys, or rats), and schedules (interval or ratio), and despite the fact that these studies were not designed for a unit-price analysis. In methodological terms, these results provide further evidence that employing the unit-price concept is a parsimonious method for examining the effects of reinforcer magnitude. In theoretical terms, these results suggest that a single process may underlie the effect of combined reinforcer-magnitude and schedule manipulations

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