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Why Preference Assessments Are Important

November 28, 2018
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Every person likes different things. Things that are reinforcing and enjoyable to one individual may be unpleasant for another person. Most of us know our own likes and dislikes, as well as the likes and dislikes of our loved ones. Regardless, because reinforcement is the most effective way to increase desired behavior, it is important to conduct preference assessments to be sure we know which of the person’s favorite things will be most useful as reinforcers.  It is crucial to identify an individual’s true preference instead of just assuming we know what someone prefers. This is where Preference Assessments come into play.

What are Preference Assessments?

Preference assessments refer to a variety of procedures to determine three main pieces of information:

  1. The stimuli the person prefers
  2. How much they prefer specific stimuli compared to other stimuli
  3. When they prefer specific stimuli

Preference assessments are observations or trial-based procedures that allow staff to determine a preference hierarchy. A preference hierarchy indicates which items are an individual’s most preferred items, moderately preferred items, and least preferred items. The goal of a preference assessment is to identify an individual’s favorite items so that they can be used as potential “reinforcers” of appropriate and desired behavior.

Single Stimulus Preference Assessments

One type of preference assessment is a Single Stimulus Preference Assessments, also known as “successive choice” assessments. This type of preference assessment is conducted by providing a single item to an individual, and recording his/her response to each item, as well as the duration of his/her engagement with each item.

Although Single Stimulus Preference Assessments may not be as accurate at determining preferences as other types of preference assessments (MSWOsMSWs, and Paired Stimulus Preference Assessments), these are appropriate for children who are unable to select between items. For example, a Single Stimulus Preference Assessment should be used when an individual always selects items from one side or always attempts to take both presented items.  Single Stimulus Preference Assessments are also appropriate for individuals who engage in challenging behavior when preferred items are taken away, because during this type of preference assessment, the individual is permitted to continue engaging with items until they choose to stop or give the items up.

It is important to perform Preference Assessments regularly because preferences may change. It is also important to use a variety of items (preferred, neutral, and non-preferred) to expose the learner to new stimuli and to also insure they are approaching items based on preference.


  • Cooper, J. O. H., Heward, T. E., William, L., Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis (No. Sirsi) i9780131421134).
  • Hagopian, L. P., Rush, K. S., Lewin, A. B., & Long, E. S. (2001). Evaluating the predictive validity of a single stimulus engagement preference assessment. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 34, 475-485.

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