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Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2000 Dec;153(1):44-56.

Deconstructing relative reinforcing efficacy and situating the measures of pharmacological reinforcement with behavioral economics: a theoretical proposal.

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University of Vermont, Department of Psychiatry, Human Behavioral Pharmacology Laboratory, 38 Fletcher Place, Ira Allen School, Burlington, VT 05401-1419, USA.



Relative reinforcing efficacy has been assumed to be a homogeneous phenomenon referring to the behavior-strengthening or behavior-maintaining effects of a drug reinforcer. However, a variety of studies suggest that relative reinforcing efficacy may be heterogeneous.


The purpose of this theoretical proposal is to examine the difficulties associated with this conception of reinforcing efficacy and to explore whether relative reinforcing efficacy is a homogenous concept or whether it is composed of several functionally related heterogeneous phenomena. In examining this issue, we explore whether behavioral economic theory may address some of the challenges to the current conception of relative reinforcing efficacy and use this theory to suggest how the differing measures of reinforcing efficacy may relate to one another.


Results indicate that peak-response rate and breakpoint are related to the economic measure of maximal output and elasticity of demand, respectively. Preference is related to and predicted by the relative location of the demand curves obtained under single schedule conditions. This behavioral economic analysis may provide a theoretical understanding of reinforcement that can reconcile results of studies that both support and fail to support the notion of reinforcing efficacy as a homogenous phenomenon.


If this theoretical proposal is validated by additional studies, then like other natural phenomena found to be heterogeneous, the study of drug reinforcers may require the adoption of several new scientific terms, such as those used in behavioral economics, each of which has analytical precision and refers to homogeneous phenomena.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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