Matching Law

Many of the chapters of my Advanced Animal Training course don’t lend themselves to be published as a stand-alone blog posts, since they build on each other.

But the chapter below, discussing the Matching Law, does!


Matching Law implies that animals (and humans) will do more of the behaviour that leads to the most favoured outcome, but they will keep offering the other, less well reinforced behaviour too, at least sometimes. Matching is affected by reinforcer quality, rate  and delay of reinforcement – and response effort.

Click the CC button at the bottom right of the video for subtitles.

The term bold shaping is something I have discussed earlier in the course – it essentially means that as we’re shaping a novel behaviour, we minimize the number of repetitions of unfinished versions of the behaviour as we’re climbing that shaping staircase.

Eileen Anderson writes about how she sees the Matching Law play out in how her dogs choose to interact with food toys.

You may think: what about Contrafreeloading and the Matching Law? Aren’t these two phenomena contradictory?(Contrafreeloading, you may recall, is when an animal chooses to work for food even though the same food is available for free, a robust phenomenon seen in many species (except, apparently, cats) – seemingly a violation of the Matching Law).

Well, it seems to me that what occurs during contrafreeloading is that another reinforcement system takes precedence. Rather than just preferentially choosing the least energetically demanding option to get the calories, the animal is choosing the option that involves a degree of work, because it stimulates the SEEKING system (a core emotion) which is reinforcing in and of itself.

So, when choosing between SEEKING and no-SEEKING, the choice is SEEKING: work over no work – contrafreeloading. But I would expect that when choosing between SEEKING with a low work/reward ratio or SEEKING with a high work/reward ratio, Matching Law kicks in.


The chapter above is from the module Schedules of Reinforcement from the Advanced Animal Training (AAT) course that opens for enrollment every year in April.

Interested in the learning more about the AAT course? Sign up below and I’ll let you know when it opens for admission! I’ll also keep you posted on blog posts,  free webinars and masterclasses, silly experiments and my other online courses – all about animal behaviour, learning and wellbeing!

8 Replies to “Matching Law”

  1. Cats do work for food when they have that same food available! I saw it recently amongst one of my foster cats.
    After watching the video, I just did a retest now. Two different foster cats, all chasing food that was in their bowl. I literally scooped out kibbles from their bowl and sent them flying around the room and they were having a ball.
    That said, I would expect this behaviour might change, depending on: circadian rhythm, hunger status, need for stimulation. So perhaps in cats, Contra-freeloading is just more variable.

    1. I should think that contrafreeloading is ALWAYS context dependent, depending on learning history as well as the difficulty of the task and hunger state… not just for cats… 🙂

  2. Interesting, but a little simplistic of a concept. Sometimes dogs just ENJOY doing …. for owner, for fun, for safety for other reasons…… they are not so simplistic beings (my experience) they have love and emotions and ….. ‘come from a place of survival’ in their genetics and instincts. People thinking this ‘simplistic’ view often don’t give credit due to dogs for their abilities and capabilities……and finally, a very true fact…… many dogs and other animals are MORE mentally stable than some people.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Don! Certainly life is never as “clean” as in the laboratory, but I think the greatest lessons from Matching Law are still valid:

      – animals keep doing behaviours even though they might not seemingly pay off in the present.
      – by being attentive to the reinforcement history of certain behaviours, we can be more effective teachers.
      – sometimes unwanted behaviour can be explained by Matching Law – and we can also use Matching Law to resolve them.

  3. I would also love to do the course in 2025, when I have finished a couple of other courses, and definitely look forward to keeping in touch in the meantime.

  4. Will definitely look forward to doing this course in 2025. Currently doing the Animal Emotions course and just feel I couldn’t do the two courses justice. The Emotions course is so jam packed with brilliant info which I’m looking forward to going back into as many times as possible in the remaining months! I’m sure this one will be just the same!

    1. Great – looking forward to *seeing* you in the Advanced Animal Training course at some later point, then! 🙂

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