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Operant Conditioning Primary and Secondary Reinforcers

Operant Conditioning Primary and Secondary Reinforcers

Author: Erick Taggart

Distinguish between primary and secondary reinforcers.

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Hello, class. So remember, when we're talking about operant conditioning, we're referring to learning that occurs as a result of the consequences of behaviors, as a result of what happens after an action occurs, which makes it more or less likely for that action to occur. So today, we're going to elaborate on a section of that, and that's on reinforcers.

Now, remember, reinforcers are anything that follows a response and makes it more likely for that response to be repeated. And there are two different types of reinforcers. There's positive reinforcers, which are anything that is given to or presented to the subject, like candy or stickers or a high five, let's say, that makes it more likely for them to do what they had previously done, and negative reinforcers, which is anything that is taken away from a subject and makes it more likely for them to do what the desired behavior is, for example, taking away a grounding by a child to make it more likely for them to do their chores.

Now, reinforcers can be used in more abstract and complex ways to explain how all of human behavior occurs. It's not something as simple as just you're given something and so you do something, because that isn't how human behavior works. So we're going to talk today about how some of those higher-level reinforcers help to create the wide range of human behaviors.

Now, there are different levels of reinforcers which have become gradually more abstract and more complex in the way that they are applied. So let's talk about those different levels. Now, for the sake of being clear, we're going to talk about mainly positive reinforcers as examples here. But remember that negative reinforcers also apply to these concepts.

So first we have primary reinforcers. Primary reinforcers are basic sorts of reinforcers that are rewarding and desirable in and of themselves. These are things that people don't have to learn to like. They are things that people just like in general.

And these are generally very basic sorts of things related to biological needs, things like food, water, or sex, for example. So these are what we would call primary reinforcers. So if somebody offers me, even as a small child, a piece of candy, I know automatically that I like it because it's a sweet thing, and I'm programmed biologically to love sweet things.

On the other hand, secondary reinforcers are reinforcers that we have to learn about. These are things that are rewarding and desirable generally because they're related to a primary reinforcer. They're not necessarily something that, coming out as a child, I would automatically know that I should like and want.

And so there are two different categories of secondary reinforcers. The first one that's probably most apparent are tokens. And tokens are things that are not valuable in themselves but can be-- can allow a person to use them to get primary reinforcers.

This is something like money. Money is a secondary reinforcer because it's not something that we necessarily value in any way because it's just paper. But we know that we can use it to buy things like food or things that we want. So that would be an example of a token.

This also includes, under secondary reinforcers, social reinforcers, which is to say reinforcement from other people, things like praise or attention or affection. So as a child, we tend to associate those kinds of things with food or physical contact, so biological primary reinforcers. But it's not necessarily something that we know right away that we should like.

But that isn't to say that any kind of secondary reinforcer is less powerful. In fact, the desire for things like money or social attention can oftentimes be a lot more powerful. So I don't want you to think secondary means less important. It just refers to exactly what level of learning and abstraction we're talking about.

Now when we're performing an action or process, oftentimes feedback can act as a reinforcer as well. And feedback refers to any kind of information that's given to a person about the results of their behavior. Now, feedback isn't necessarily rewarding in and of itself. So it's kind of a form of secondary reinforcement, especially a sort of social reinforcer.

For example, when somebody's playing a video game, let's say, things like the music that's going on in the background or the flashing colors let a person know exactly how they're performing in the game, whether they've done the correct action. So they're rewarding, and they improve the likelihood of somebody correcting their behavior and doing what they're supposed to be doing. So you can see, as we go down, they become a little bit more abstract and less specific or concrete to the person. But again, all three of them are very helpful ways of reinforcing behavior and making it more likely for it to occur.

Terms to Know

Information offered to the subject regarding the results of a behavior.

Primary Reinforcers

Reward that fulfills a biological need/desire.

Secondary Reinforcer

Reward that the subject has learned has value to them.