What Influences My Behaviour? The Matching Law Explanation That Will Change How You Understand Your Actions

Choices. We make thousands of them every single day. Little decisions that shape up how we behave and how our habits form in the long term. And I’m not just talking about the deliberate choices that you make (should I buy a coffee with or without a muffin?). We actually make a heck of a lot of decisions without devoting conscious attention to them and can make better choices as a result (Mamede et al., 2010). Thank goodness for this!  Imagine how unproductive we would all be if we had to consider every minute decision that we made each day. But if we are not always aware of how we choose between two different responses, then how do we actually make that decision?  Read on to find out!

From a behavioural science perspective, a choice has occurred when an individual selects a particular response from an array of alternatives in order to access reinforcement (Fisher & Mazur, 1997). For example, Brett could choose to revise for his upcoming exam or to hang out with his friends. Depending on what type of individual Brett is, he might find it more reinforcing to hang out with his friends than to engage in more studious behaviours. Maybe he will leave revision until the last minute when the consequences of not knowing the exam questions will more strongly outweigh that of not socialising! Reinforcement, in case you were wondering, occurs after you have responded to something and it increases the likelihood that you will engage in that type of behaviour again in the future.  Look at what you choose to do in your spare time. What do you like doing? The chances are if you enjoy doing something and choose to do it freely, it is (probably) a reinforcer for your behaviour! *

Viewing behaviour from this perspective can bring new insights as to why we respond in the way that we do. But understanding reinforcement is only part of the puzzle in understanding choice.

Out of all the concepts that I have learned from studying behaviour, there is one which I find myself constantly referring to. I use it to explain why I have chosen to behave in a certain way in a given situation, why did I do this instead of that. It helps me to make sense of my behaviour in a way that I could not figure out before.  It is a concept which is relatively easy to understand, yet many people have rarely have heard of it. Allow me to dispel the mystery!

The Matching Law: A Ground-breaking Start

In 1961 a behavioural researcher called Richard J. Herrnstein discovered the amazing concept which he defined as the matching law.  The matching law states that “any individual will distribute his or her behaviour between the alternatives (i.e. Behaviour A and Behaviour B) in the same ratio that reinforcement i.e. (Reinforcement A and Reinforcement B) has been obtained for those alternatives”. In other words, we match our behaviour to the reinforcement available for each response. We behave in a way which we think will get us the maximum possible reward!

For example, you might choose to approach a teacher Mr Finn for advice, rather than Mr Schneebly, because in the past they have provided you with more interesting, helpful or wacky answers. Or maybe they just responded more quickly to your emails. Either way, approaching a certain teacher is the response choice and how they respond to you determines the reinforcement you get back. (Props to anyone who noticed my School of Rock film reference there!)

One piece of research which demonstrated the effects of the matching law in real life was by Hoch, McComas, Faranda, and Guenther (2002). In this study, the participants (who were three children diagnosed with autism) could choose to play in a setting alone or with a peer/sibling.  In the first condition, the duration of access to toys and how highly preferred those toys were, remained consistent across both settings. But in the second condition, the researchers made more highly preferred toys available and for a longer duration only in the setting with peers/siblings.  This resulted in the children with autism playing more frequently in the setting with a peer/sibling than playing alone. This is an interesting result, especially considering that children with autism can have difficulty communicating and interact with their peers (Greenspan & Wieder, 1997). A small change to the environment, i.e. increasing the availability of reinforcement in social situations, could eventually lead to big gains in the children’s ability and desire to communicate with their peers. This is all because behaviour goes where reinforcement flows!

The matching law is based upon a mathematical equation and this is probably the reason why some people avoid this topic, but please do not let this put you off! I am not a maths magician but even I can grasp the basic concepts and I am sure you can too! The insights that you can gain from learning about it are worth it, trust me.


A Bigger Picture of Behaviour: The Generalised Matching Law

One flaw which was discovered in the earlier versions of the matching law is that it over simplified behaviour and the role of reinforcement. Researchers found that the matching law did not always predict behaviour accurately. People made choices which were disproportionate to what was expected. Their behaviour did not perfectly match to the reinforcement that was available (Reed & Kaplan, 2011). This meant that there were other elements, or biases to reinforcement, which were influencing how an individual would choose to respond.

Therefore, the generalised matching law was created; a more complex equation which included extra elements, taking into account a wider variety of factors affecting choice.  The interpretation of the generalised matching law by Mace and colleague is one which I have found to be particularly useful and have credited as such.

The generalised matching law interpretation by Mace, Pratt, Zangrillo and Steege (2013) implies that there are four factors which impact upon choice (). Let me break them down for you:

  • Rate of Reinforcement

How often is your response being reinforced? Is it every time you respond, only some of the time, or rarely?

Translation: With every bite you take, is that chocolate always delicious? Yes! Are salads always delicious? (For me at least!) Not so much.


  • Quality of Reinforcement

How much do you prefer this type of reinforcement? Is it high quality and really desirable or more of a subpar quality that you would not mind to miss out on?

Translation: Is your chocolate bar brand the cheapest of the cheap, or your well-known favourite? Does the salad have fresh ingredients that you love or a group of sad limp vegetables that are past their best?


  • Delay to Reinforcement

Once you have responded, how long do you have to wait for your response to be reinforced? Is the reinforcement immediate or is there a long gap between the behaviour and reinforcement?

Translation: The immediate taste of sugary treats VS the long term benefits of eating healthy salads.


  • Response Effort

How much effort do you need to exert in order for your response to be reinforced? Is there a high or low amount of effort involved?

Translation: Is the chocolate within easy reach or would you need to drive to the shops to go get some? Have you pre-made the salad so you can eat it right now or do you need to chop up all the ingredients at lunch when you are already hungry?


Are you with me so far? Good because I’m about to throw three more factors into the mix!

There are three other additional factors which also impact upon choice behaviour. These are:

  • History of Reinforcement

Has this response resulted in my behaviour being reinforced in the past? How long and deep seated is my connection to this reinforcer?

Translation: How many chocolate bars have I eaten over the course of my lifetime so far (I don’t want to know!). How many of those chocolates had an enjoyable taste or consequence (most of them, except my unfortunate taste experiments with flavours such as coconut!).


  • Novelty

Is this a new variety of reinforcement? Have I enjoyed similar reinforcing consequences before? We enjoy variability. Variety really is the spice of life after all! (Read the first chapter of book ‘The Science of Consequences’ if you want to find out more).

Translation: You try a new type of salad instead of your usual go to favourite “Chicken Cesar” because you like to live dangerously!


  • Motivation

Our motivation for any given reinforcer will fluctuate constantly throughout the day. This alters the value of a reinforcer and links in with the factors of reinforcement which I have already mentioned.

Translation: Salad on a cold winter morning is a low-quality type of reinforcement, but it becomes higher in quality at lunch time in the blistering sunshine.

Whether you can cope with a delay from reinforcement also varies on how much you have been deprived of it. For example, if I have just eaten some chocolate then I am more likely to cope with a couple of days delay before having more chocolate, then if I have not eaten any chocolate yet that day (and thus have been deprived of chocolate).



In a nutshell, the generalised matching law tells us that; everyone prefers higher amounts, quality, and rates of reward. They prefer rewards that come sooner and requires less overall effort to receive.

We will choose rewards which we know we enjoyed in the past, but we also enjoy novel rewards and those which we are more motivated to obtain.

All of this information is extremely useful in peeling back the layers of your behaviour to figure out why you are behaving in the way that you are!


A Limitation to Keep in Mind

Now I know what you are thinking. This is all well and good, but can the generalised matching law predict all behaviour? After all, being able to predict behaviour is the key to behaviour change.  Well if it could then I would be sitting on a gold mine right now! In all seriousness, behaviour is unbelievably and incredibly complex. It is perhaps understandable then that the matching law cannot predict all behaviour, in every situation, with the vast array of consequences, biology and histories of reinforcement interacting together at any given moment.

But I believe that the matching law is an under-rated and useful tool in helping us to gain insight into our behaviour. So now that you know about it, why not try using it to solve your own behaviour conundrums?

Exercise:  A ‘To do’ for you!

Take a moment to think about your behaviour, to a time when you chose to respond in one way rather than another. Maybe you looked onto Facebook rather than doing your chores. Maybe you chose a mug of hot chocolate over a cool glass of water. Really take the time to think of some examples.

Now look at the generalised matching law (see the bullet points above) and find out if there are any elements which influenced you to behave in the way that you did. Was the reinforcing consequence delayed for one behaviour and not the other? Had you been deprived of one reward for a few days? Was one response less effort to produce than the other?

I hope this helps you to find something interesting about your behaviour!

What are your thoughts about the matching law? Does it help you to gain a deeper understanding of your behaviour?

Let me know in the comments section below!

Header image via Pexels.


*A note about the behaviour babble: You can also describe “reinforcement” as a “reward” if this really helps you to get your head around this concept. Just be mindful that “reward” is not always synonymous with reinforcement. For example, a teacher could reprimand a child who is misbehaving. Their reprimands could be classed as a reinforcer for the child’s misbehaviour, if the misbehaviour starts to occur more frequently over time. Often rewards can be classed as reinforcers, but definitely not always.



Fisher, W. W., & Mazur, J. E. (1997). Basic and applied research on choice responding. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 30, 387–410.

Greenspan, S. I., & Wieder, S. (1997). Developmental patterns and outcomes in infants and children with disorders in relating and communicating: A chart review of 200 cases of children with autistic spectrum diagnoses. Journal of Developmental and Learning disorders, 1, 87-142.

Herrnstein, R. J. (1961). Relative and absolute strength of response as a function of frequency of reinforcement. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 4, 267–272.

Hoch, H., McComas, J. J., Johnson, L., Faranda, N., & Guenther, S. L. (2002). The effects of magnitude and quality of reinforcement on choice responding during play activities. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 35(2), 171-181.

Mace, F.C., Pratt, J.C., Zangrillo, A.N., & Steege, M.W. (2013). Schedules of Reinforcement. In W.W. Fisher, Piazza, C. & Roane, H. (Eds.), Handbook of applied behaviour analysis. New York: Wiley & Sons.

Mamede, S., Schmidt, H. G., Rikers, R. M., Custers, E. J., Splinter, T. A., & van Saase, J. L. (2010). Conscious thought beats deliberation without attention in diagnostic decision-making: at least when you are an expert. Psychological research, 74(6), 586-592.

Reed, D. D., & Kaplan, B. A. (2011). The matching law: A tutorial for practitioners. Behavior analysis in practice, 4(2), 15-24.

Schneider, S. M. (2012). The science of consequences: how they affect genes, change the brain, and impact our world. Prometheus Books.


3 thoughts on “What Influences My Behaviour? The Matching Law Explanation That Will Change How You Understand Your Actions

  1. Hi!

    This is great content to share with supervisees! It was described in very practical terms that anyone can understand.

    Thank you!

  2. Hi Ev, thank you very much for your feedback and taking the time to read my blog. Unfortunately, there has been a discrepancy with the rights to those images. However, I am working hard to create or source an appropriate alternate which will be on the blog ASAP. Thank you for your patience!

  3. Why are all the equations now missing from this piece? I found it much easier to understand with them in.

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