What Is a Secondary Reinforcer?

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A secondary reinforcer is a stimulus that reinforces a behavior after it has been associated with a primary reinforcer. For example: When you give your dog a food treat and tell him "good boy," he's getting both the primary stimulus of the treat and the secondary reinforcer of the verbal praise.

Primary reinforcers are biological in nature. Secondary reinforcers require association with these innate reinforcers before they can produce a response. So, your dog may not associate the verbal praise with a reward unless you combine it with the food treat.

What Is a Secondary Reinforcer?

The American Psychological Association defines a secondary reinforcer as a neutral stimulus that can enhance the likelihood of a future response by being paired with a stimulus that naturally enhances that response.

Secondary Reinforcers in Operant Conditioning​

By rewarding certain behaviors, we're encouraging those behaviors in the future. However, not all reinforcers are the same. Some can be more motivating than others. The dog from our earlier example is more likely to be highly motivated by a primary reinforcer like a treat than a pat on the head (the secondary reinforcer) ​because food satisfies a strong biological need.

If the dog's trainer wanted to pair that food with some type of secondary reinforcer, 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.

Secondary Reinforcers vs. Primary Reinforcers

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

Secondary reinforcers are also called conditioned reinforcers and do not occur naturally and need to be learned. Money is an example of a secondary reinforcer. Money helps reinforce behaviors because it can be used to acquire primary reinforcers such as food, clothing, and shelter (among other things).

Another difference between secondary reinforcers and primary reinforcers is the areas of the brain where they are processed. Primary reinforcers appear to more strongly affect older brain regions (such as the anterior insula) whereas secondary reinforcers more strongly impact newer areas of the brain (such as the anterior orbitofrontal cortex).

Secondary Reinforcer
  • Neutral stimulus (reinforces only when paired with a primary reinforcer)

  • Only tied to biological needs through association

  • Needs to be learned

  • Also known as conditioned reinforcer

  • Processed in newer areas of the brain

Primary Reinforcer
  • Natural stimulus (reinforces naturally, doesn't need to be paired with another reinforcer)

  • Directly tied to biological needs

  • Does not need to be learned

  • Also known as unconditioned reinforcer

  • Processed in older areas of the brain

Examples of Secondary Reinforcers

Token economies are a good example of how a secondary reinforcer can be used in operant conditioning. Token economies involve rewarding people with tokens, chips, or stars for good behaviors. These tokens can then be exchanged for other items that the individual desires.

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

Advantages of Using a Secondary Reinforcer

So, what are the benefits of using a secondary reinforcer? Why not just skip the trouble of forming an association and simply use a primary reinforcer 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, for instance. Likewise, a child is unlikely to clean their room to receive a treat if they just finished eating lunch.

A secondary reinforcer allows the trainer to continue to deliver reinforcement even if the subject does not have any biological needs at the moment.

Secondary reinforcement is less susceptible to satiation. So, it provides the opportunity to deliver reinforcement at any time.

A Word From Verywell

Secondary reinforcers use operational conditioning principles to help reinforce the desired behavior, even if the subject's biological needs have already been met. Thus, they can be useful in a variety of situations, from home to school to therapeutic settings.

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