The Psychology of Secondary Reinforcement

Mother talking to her daughter on the floor

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Secondary reinforcement refers to a situation in which a stimulus 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 reinforcement of the verbal praise.

While the 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.

Reinforcement and Operant Conditioning​

By rewarding certain behaviors, we're encouraging the 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 ​because food satisfies a strong biological need.

If the dog's 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.

Secondary Reinforcement vs. Primary Reinforcements

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, and shelter (among other things). 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 tokens 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. While they have no inherent reinforcement value in and of themselves, such tokens 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.

Advantages of 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 to deliver 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.

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