What Is a Secondary Reinforcer?

Secondary reinforcement chart
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In operant conditioning, secondary reinforcement refers to a situation in which a stimulus reinforces a behavior after it has been associated with a primary reinforcer. While the primary reinforcers are biological in nature, secondary reinforcers require association with these innate reinforcers before they can produce a response.

Reinforcement plays a critical role in operant conditioning. By rewarding certain behaviors, these actions become more likely to occur again in the future.

However, not all reinforcers are the same. Some can be more motivating than others while some can be of a great magnitude. A dog, for example, is more likely to be highly motivated by a primary reinforcer like a treat because food satisfies a strong biological need. If a trainer wanted to pair that food with some type of secondary reinforcement such as the sound of a whistle, the sound of the whistle would eventually become associated with the food and serve as a form of secondary reinforcement.

How Are Secondary Reinforcement and Primary Reinforcement Different?

The primary reinforcers occur naturally and do not need to be learned. Examples of primary reinforcers include things that satisfy basic survival needs such as water, food, sleep, air and sex.

Money is one example of secondary reinforcement. Money can be used to reinforce behaviors because it can be used to acquire primary reinforcers such as food, clothing, shelter and other such things.

Animal trainers sometimes use clickers as a type of secondary reinforcement. After pairing the sound of a clicker with praise or treats, the sound of the clicker alone can eventually work as a reinforcer.

Secondary reinforcement is also known as conditioned reinforcement.

More Examples of Secondary Reinforcement

Token economies are another good example of how secondary reinforcement can be used in operant conditioning.

Token economies involve rewarding people with tokens, chips or stars for good behaviors. These token can then be exchanged for other items that the individual desires.

Parents, teachers and therapists frequently utilize this type of reinforcement to encourage children and clients to engage in adaptive behaviors. The tokens are a form of secondary reinforcement. While they have no inherent reinforcement value in and of themselves, they can be used to purchase primary reinforcers such as soda pops, candy, and other privileges. Once this association has been made, the tokens themselves become reinforcing.

Why Use Secondary Reinforcement?

So what are the advantages of using secondary reinforcement? Why not just skip the trouble of forming an association and simply use primary reinforcement instead? As you can probably already imagine, primary reinforcers are only reinforcing if the subject is in a state of deprivation. A dog is unlikely to perform tricks in exchange for a treat if the animal is full and satiated. A child is unlikely to clean her room to receive a treat if she just finished eating lunch.

Utilizing secondary reinforcement allows the trainer to continue delivery reinforcement even if the subject does not have any biological needs at the moment.

This form of reinforcement is less susceptible to satiation, so it provides the opportunity to deliver reinforcement at any time.

So, for example, imagine that you want to teach your dog to shake your hand. You issue the "shake" command, and you reward your dog with a treat for placing his paw in your hand. At the same time, you also immediately say "Good dog!" and give him a pet on the head. Eventually, your dog is going to reach the satiation point - he will be full, so the item will no longer be rewarding. Fortunately, you also established the secondary reinforcement of praise (saying "Good dog”) and affection (petting him on the head).

Even after the primary reinforcement is withdrawn, the dog will continue to perform the behavior to receive the secondary reinforcers.

More Psychology Definitions: The Psychology Dictionary

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