Now that we’ve discussed unconditioned motivating operations (UMOs) and are now able to differentiate a motivating operation (MO) from a discriminative stimulus (SD), we can delve into the world of conditioned motivating operations (CMOs).
Just by looking at the words “conditioned motivating operations” we can glean that a CMO is a UMO that is learned (or conditioned). In fact, a CMO is defined as a previously neutral event that either precedes or is paired with a UMO which then has an effect on future behavior.
A common mistake is to see this definition and immediately think of classical conditioning. There are similarities in the language but there are major differences. Do not be confused by this.
Like a conditioned stimulus (CS), a CMO has been paired with a neutral stimulus. But unlike a CS, a CMO not only affects behavior, it also alters the value of particular consequences. A CS does not alter the value of a consequence – only MOs do this.
The first CMO we will address is the CMO-S or surrogate CMO. Again, if we just look at the words, we can get an idea of what a surrogate CMO is. “Surrogate” by definition, is something that stands in, or substitutes for something else. So in the case of a CMO-S, it is something that substitutes or stands in for a UMO.
The simplest example of a CMO-S is the lunchtime routine and the clock. You eat lunch each day at 12:30 because you are typically hungry at 12:30. You do this routine for quite a while. Over time, seeing “12:30” on the clock becomes paired with the feeling of being hungry. Now, every day when you see the clock strike 12:30, you immediately open your desk drawer and pull out your lunch to eat. If seeing the clock strike 12:30 has become a CMO-S, you would actually “feel hungry”(how’s that for mentalistic language?) at 12:30, thereby making food “more valuable” and cause you to engage in behaviors in order to get food (open drawer and pull out lunch), even, if in fact, you weren’t that hungry.
Now why isn’t “12:30” an SD? Answer: Because the lunch is always available right there in your drawer, no matter what time it is. “12:30” isn’t signaling that reinforcement is available.
Can “12:30 be an SD?: Answer: In an alternative situation where the drawer was locked and at 12:30, it magically became unlocked, “12:30” may then be considered an SD, as it would signal that reinforcement is now available.
And now for the million dollar question: Why do we need to know this?
Answer: As behavior analysts, we are trained to evaluate and assess behavior on the basis of our direct observations. During my training, this was repeatedly pounded into me. Direct observation, parsimony, ABC…etc. At this point in time, UMOs are not directly observable but a CMO-S is. When confronted with behavior whose function is difficult to ascertain, expanding our level of observation and looking for CMOs can assist us in determining the function of complex behavior. While the concept may be difficult to grasp, CMOs are important in that they expand the behavior analyst's view of behavior and provide us with a more comprehensive understanding of why behavior occurs.
In the case of CMO-S, we need to be looking out for seemingly neutral stimuli in the environment that may be signaling to the behaver that at that moment, a particular reinforcer is more valuable (when it might not really be) and that engaging in a particular behavior to obtain that reinforcer will be more likely to occur.