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Response cost is a special case of a punishment procedure that involves taking away desirable

possessions, points, tokens, or privileges in planned, incremental steps following the

occurrence of an undesirable behavior or failure to meet a specific goal. That is, behaving
inappropriately or in an undesirable manner costs the individual something they already
possess or privileges they currently enjoy and expect to have access to in the future.
Technically, the cost component of the procedure is referred to as a loss of reinforcers
which means that individuals lose something they value or consider desirable and currently
possessand the procedure results in a reduction in or weakening of behavior following the
removal of a positive stimulus. Its end goal, as with all punishment procedures, is to reduce
the frequency and/or strength of maladaptive or undesirable behavior. Common examples of
response cost include introducing monetary fines for inappropriate behavior (speeding in an
automobile, filing a delinquent income tax return) and losing points or tokens used to access
special privileges in a classroom (e.g., as part of an ongoing classroom incentive system or
token economy).
Punishment is a frequently misunderstood technical term. For example, many parents
complain that their children don't respond to punishment or that punishment is ineffective.
Both statements are inaccurate. Punishment is defined as the reduction in behavior following
the introduction of an aversive stimulus or removal of a positive stimulus. Thus, if an
undesirable behavior shows no reduction in frequency or strength following the introduction
of an aversive stimulus or removal of a positive stimulus, then the procedure fails to meet the
definition as punishment. In these situations, the intended stimulus (either presentation of an
aversive or removal of a positive) is not an effective punisher. At first glance, this definitional
nuance may appear trivial, but it is an important distinction because many people assume that
if some event or stimulus is aversive to them personally, it must be aversive to everyone.
Clearly, this is not the case. There is considerable variability with respect to what individuals
regard as aversive. For example, consider the extreme case of children who engage in selfinjurious behavior by chronically slamming their head against hard surfaces or an adult with a
masochistic personality.
Response cost differs procedurally from other common forms of punishment. Punishment
may involve (a) the presentation of an aversive stimulus (e.g., a light swat on the buttocks for
running out into the street without looking for cars), (b) removing the individual from a
situation or setting that is desirable (referred to as time-out from reinforcement), and (c)
removing a positive stimulus, as is the case with response cost. All three variations of
punishment result in a decrease in or weakening of behavior but use different processes to
accomplish this goal. Traditional punishment introduces an aversive stimulus following an
undesirable or inappropriate behavior. Time-out removes the individual from an otherwise
positive or reinforcing situation or setting. And response cost takes away reinforcers that have
already been earned or are in the person's possession. Thus, response cost is similar to other
forms of punishment in that it reduces or weakens a behavior, but is unique in the manner by
which it accomplishes this goalby taking away items, activities, and privileges that are
considered desirable by an individual following an incidence of inappropriate or undesirable
One of the most intriguing aspects of response cost is that it can affect a wide range of
desirable behaviors if programmed with these goals in mind. For example, response cost can
be used as part of a broader behavioral program to increase children's ability to pay attention
in the classroom. In this situation, children might earn points on an ongoing basis for paying
attention and lose points for not paying attention. Earned points are subsequently exchanged

for extra time playing learning games or other special activities in the classroom at the end of
the academic session. A host of other positive behaviors are likely to accrue in this scenario
owing to the combined response costpositive reinforcement program. Attentive children are
less likely to be out of their seats, annoying others, and acting impulsively and more likely to
complete academic assignments. These behavioral changes have a high probability of
translating into additional benefits, such as improved learning for children receiving
contingent response cost, as well as for other children in the classroom who benefit indirectly
from a less disruptive environment that is more conducive to learning.
Extant research related to response cost focuses primarily on its use as a treatment
intervention. The procedure, however, is also used judiciously in other scientific works to
investigate a wide range of phenomena. For example, researchers interested in operant
conditioning principles incorporate the procedure into experimental protocols to examine how
particular punishment techniques affect behavior being maintained under different schedules
of reinforcement (i.e., to better understand underlying principles of behavior). Response cost
procedures are also invoked to investigate a wide range of phenomena that may be better
accounted for by individual differences in motivation. Investigations of behavioral inhibition
(i.e., the ability to withhold a previously reinforced response when signaled to do so by some
external cue such as a tone), for example, use response cost contingencies to examine whether
motivational factors underlie the typically poor response inhibition in children with attentiondeficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). If poor inhibitory performance is observed despite the
imposition of response cost procedures scheduled to punish such behavior (and by extension,
improve inhibitory performance), this would render a motivational explanation unlikely and
support the notion of response inhibition deficits.

Extant research provides strong support for the use of response cost when used as part of a
more comprehensive treatment approach. The majority of published research describes
various uses and modified applications of the procedure in regular education classrooms,
usually combined with an ongoing reinforcement program or token economy. For example,
when response cost principles are introduced as part of a classroom lottery, elementary
school-age boys exhibit rapid and significant reductions of inappropriate and disruptive
behavior and concomitant increases in attention and scholastic productivity.
Research consistently reveals that response cost is significantly more effective than no
intervention for reducing a wide range of inappropriate classroom behaviors, including clear
reductions in verbal and physical incidences of aggressive behavior. The procedure is also
used with special populations of children, such as those placed in special education
classrooms or with learning disabilities. Both populations show clear benefit from a combined
response cost-positive incentive program, including enhanced ability to pay attention for
longer intervals, and improved scholastic performance.
Response cost is also more effective than positive reinforcement alone in improving on-task
(attentive) behavior and academic performance in school-age children and as an effective
management technique for regulating the behavior of children with ADHD in particular. Other
research findings reveal that the technique, when coupled with a positive incentive program,
is as or more effective than carefully adjusted doses of psychostimulant medication such as
Ritalin (i.e., the most widely used treatment for ADHD) for improving attentive behavior,

reducing teacher ratings of disruptive behavior, and increasing daily academic work
Other applications of response cost noted in the literature include using the technique to
increase (a) time spent playing the piano at home, (b) compliance in completing household
chores in a timely manner, and (c) homework completion. It is also commonly used in
institutional settings (e.g., inpatient units) as a component of a broader token economy or
positive incentive system for reducing inappropriate behavior and improving adaptive
behavior. Note in the above examples that changes in behavior are nearly always related to
increases in appropriate behavior rather than to decreases in inappropriate behavior, which
appears contradictory to the definition of punishment (i.e., a reduction in behavior). This
seeming contradiction is easily resolved, however, by carefully considering the specific
stimulus used and how it is applied to produce behavior change. In the above examples, 1
minute of outside playtime might be taken away following each interval exceeding 15 seconds
in which a child is not practicing the piano or completing chores or homework. This clearly
meets the criteria of punishment (i.e., the removal of a positive stimulus) as long as access to
outdoor play is viewed as a desirable activity by the child. When children decrease their time
off-task (the actual behavior being punished), they typically engage in more productive forms
of behavior such as playing the piano and completing homework and choreshence, the
noted increases in behavior represent indirect results of the procedure.


Response cost is traditionally reserved for situations in which positive incentive systems and
procedures have already been tried and resulted in limited or no success, when rapid behavior
change is warranted owing to safety concerns and for special target populations supported by
extant research. Relevant target populations currently include children with ADHD, children
with learning disability (particularly those who experience problems maintaining attention),
children in special classrooms for emotional/behavioral problems (particularly those with
externalizing behavior problems), and psychiatric inpatient units. Behavior problems common
to each of these populations include difficulty concentrating (staying on-task, in educational
vernacular), low rates of academic assignments completed on a daily basis, capricious
behavior, and poor compliance with verbal requests and instructions.
There are exceptional cases and situations in which response cost and other forms of
punishment may be inappropriate. Very young children and those with impaired cognitive
functioning (e.g., individuals with schizophrenia, autism, or mental retardation) may not
understand the contingent relationships between their behavior and the loss of reinforcers.
Individuals with particular handicapping conditions that limit their ability to meet
performance criteria also represent cases in which response cost procedures are inappropriate,
unless they can accommodate the individual's disability. Individuals with a history of
becoming highly emotional or agitated with minimal provocation, such as adolescents and
adults with explosive personality disorder and some children with mental retardation and
concomitant explosive tendencies, represent additional exceptions because of the tendency of
response cost (and punishment techniques more generally) to evoke emotional responding.


The most frequent complications associated with response cost include the (a) potential to
lose points too quickly, (b) mismanagement of the procedure by overly enthusiastic or callous
adults, (c) potential of evoking emotional behavior, and (d) tendency to focus on reductions in
inappropriate behavior to the exclusion of strengthening adaptive functioning.
Losing points too quickly is a common complication of response cost. Many individuals, and
younger children in particular, will simply give up and stop trying following rapid point loss.
This is particularly true in situations in which there is no opportunity to gain additional points
for appropriate behavior. The complication can usually be avoided by programming a positive
incentive program such that points are awarded on a fixed or variable schedule of
reinforcement (i.e., as opposed to providing all possible points initially) while limiting the
number of points that can be lost within a given period of time to match the reinforcement
schedule. The program should be modified whenever point loss exceeds point gains. That is,
the opportunity of rewards should always exceed the possibility of losing them. Invoking
these types of contingent relationships also helps to reduce the likelihood of misusing the
procedure by well-meaning but overly zealous adults.
Response cost, as with most forms of punishment, has the potential to invoke emotional
responding and aggression following point loss. Emotional responding, in turn, may result in
additional punishment, leading to a spiraling sequence of punishment and undesirable
behaviors. These situations can be largely avoided by (a) combining response cost with an
ongoing positive incentive system, (b) closely monitoring emotional reactions to point loss,
and (c) ensuring that the opportunity to earn points always exceeds the possibility of losing
A final complication related to the use of response cost concerns the tendency to rely
exclusively on the procedure for behavioral control. Response cost, like all punishment
procedures, decreases, weakens, or eliminates undesirable behavior but does not directly teach
or strengthen adaptive behavior. A child who spends less time off-task must possess or be
taught the requisite skills by which to learn, and individuals who exhibit decreases in
disruptive or aggressive behavior must still learn how to interact appropriately with their

George was a 9-year-old, third grade, Caucasian male with a protracted history of
classroom behavior problems beginning shortly after entering the first grade. He experienced
significant difficulty paying attention to academic assignments or classroom instruction for
more than a few minutes at a time, disturbed other children, was capricious, and was
frequently out of his seat. A comprehensive diagnostic evaluation at the community mental
health clinic revealed that George met diagnostic criteria for ADHD. George's mother
consulted with the mental health center, her son's pediatrician, and relevant school personnel
before deciding on a course of therapy for her son. Following a 1-week baseline assessment
period (i.e., no intervention), George received three dosages (morning and early afternoon) of
a commonly prescribed psychostimulant medication (Ritalin) consisting of 5 milligrams, 10
milligrams, and 15 milligrams, each for a 2-week time interval. He exhibited clear and
immediate improvement in his ability to remain attentive (on-task) during academic
assignments, completed significantly more academic assignments on a daily basis, and was
less disruptive in the classroom and at school in general, with the highest rates of combined
improvements occurring during the 10-milligram weeks.

The medication regimen was discontinued after the 6-week trial period and, following a
second baseline condition, replaced by an in-class, combined incentiveresponse cost
intervention for the ensuing 4 weeks. In this unique application, response cost was coupled
with positive reinforcement to create the Attentional Training System (ATS), which consists
of student and teacher modules. A base unit is placed on the child's desk and assigns one point
for each minute the child is on-task. The classroom teacher uses a lightweight, handheld,
wireless control unit and monitors the child's behavior from anywhere in the room, which
facilitates concomitant involvement in other instructional activities (e.g., working with other
children in small groups in the classroom). Unlike other conventional classroom behavioral
systems, the teacher does nothing if the child is on-task (i.e., the child is automatically
awarded one point per minute by the ATS), and activates a button on the handheld unit if the
child is off-task. Pushing the button causes a red light to illuminate on the child's unit and
signals the child that a point has been deducted from the accumulated total. A counter on the
front of the child's unit shows the total number of accumulated points earned throughout the
academic session to enable children to monitor their own progress.
George and the classroom teacher received their respective modules and detailed instructions
concerning the ATS. The ATS was programmed such that George earned one point for each
minute that he remained attentive to his academic assignments or teacher instruction and lost
one point following each occasion in which the classroom teacher noticed that he was offtask. Points were traded in at the conclusion of each academic assignment throughout the day
for access to special activities available within the classroom (i.e., each point earned 1 minute
of access to special activities). George's favorite special activity incentives included playing
learning games on the computer and drawing with colored markers. Implementation of the
ATS resulted in clear and sustained increases in attentive behavior, assignment completion,
and reduced disruptiveness in the classroom over the 4-week period. Positive effects,
however, did not generalize to situations outside the classroom. George continued to
experience behavior problems during recess and other activities that occurred away from the
classroom in which the ATS was inoperative.
A final, 1-week baseline phase was scheduled following the discontinuation of the response
cost procedure to facilitate comparisons of the two treatments with no intervention. The final
baseline (no intervention) period also allowed the treatment team to determine whether any
gains associated with response cost were maintained following its discontinuation (i.e.,
treatment maintenance effects). Inspection of the data revealed that George reverted back to
his initial baseline levels of behavior and academic performance after a few days of no
treatment. This finding was largely expected and is consistent with results obtained from
highly controlled treatment outcome studies involving psychostimulant and behavioral
treatments (i.e., neither is associated with sustained gains following the withdrawal of active
George's mother elected to have her son continue with the response cost treatment for the
remainder of the school year but switched him to a 10-milligram psychostimulant regimen the
following year, owing to inconsistent use of the behavior management procedure by the new
classroom teacher.
Mark D. Rapport and Gezim Begolli
Further Reading

Entry Citation:
Rapport, Mark D., and Gezim Begolli. "Response Cost." Encyclopedia of Behavior
Modification and Cognitive Behavior Therapy. 2007. SAGE Publications. 15 Apr. 2008.