Primary and secondary reinforcers are both forms of positive reinforcement, which is the process of rewarding a behavior. Primary reinforcement involves a reward that fulfils a biological need. Secondary reinforcers are learned and work via association with primary reinforcers.

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Primary reinforcers are tied to biological needs, while secondary reinforcers are stimuli that acquire their power via an association with a biological need.

Primary Reinforcer Definition

Primary reinforcers have to do with fulfilling a biological need. Things like food, drink, shelter and pleasure are all examples of primary reinforcers. An example of primary reinforcement would be giving a dog a treat for sitting down.

Secondary Reinforcer Definition

Secondary reinforcement occurs when a particular stimulus reinforces a certain behavior via association with a primary reinforcer. Let's say you’re training your dog to sit. Every time you utter the command “sit” and he responds by sitting down, you give him a treat as a reward and tell him “good boy.” You are using the food as a primary reinforcer. With time and after many repetitions, you give him less food but always follow up with the praise. Occasionally, you may even skip the treat and leave the praise, and the dog will still respond to the command. The praise “good dog” in this case became a secondary reinforcer.

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Most human reinforcers are secondary. These include money, good grades in school, tokens, stars and stickers and praise. Money is a secondary reinforcer because it can be used to purchase primary reinforcers such as food and clothing. Secondary reinforcement is a powerful tool for behavior modification in children. Parents and teachers give out praise, toys, stars and stickers to reward desirable behavior and increase the likelihood of it happening again.

Advantages of Secondary Reinforcement

Secondary reinforcement is more powerful than primary reinforcement because it is not tied to biological needs. For example, if a dog is not hungry, he is unlikely to listen to your commands if he is used to food being a reward. Similarly, if a child has just had a big piece of cake, she is not going to practice her violin in exchange for candy. She might do so in exchange for a star on her chart (secondary reinforcer) that she can exchange for candy later. Secondary reinforcement is much more effective in learning than primary reinforcement.

Positive vs. Negative Reinforcement

Positive and negative reinforcement does not mean good vs. bad. Both forms of reinforcement aim to increase the likelihood of a certain behavior. Positive reinforcement is when something is added to increase the likelihood of a behavior. Negative reinforcement is when something is removed to increase the likelihood of a behavior. Positive reinforcement involves adding desirable stimuli to increase the likelihood of a behavior.

Negative reinforcement is when an undesirable stimulus is removed to increase a behavior. For example, your seatbelt system beeps every time you start your car and keeps beeping until you fasten your seatbelt. When you fasten your seatbelt, the annoying beeping goes away (undesirable stimulus removed), making it more likely that you will perform the desirable behavior (fastening your seatbelt) every time you start the car.

Reinforcement vs. Punishment

Although the two are sometimes confused, negative reinforcement and punishment are not the same thing. Remember, the goal of any kind of reinforcement is to increase the likelihood of a certain behavior. The goal of punishment, on the other hand, is to decrease the likelihood of a behavior.

Like reinforcement, punishment can also be positive (adding something to decrease the likelihood of a behavior) or negative (removing something to decrease the likelihood of a behavior). An example of a positive punishment is when your son has been swearing and you make him do an extra chore (adding an unpleasant stimulus) to decrease the likelihood of that happening again. An example of a negative punishment is if your toddler has been hitting his friend with a toy truck, and you take away the toy truck (removing a pleasant stimulus) to decrease the likelihood of hitting happening again.

As with reinforcers, there are primary and secondary punishers. A primary punisher has to do with the subject's biological needs and well being: hunger, environmental temperature, electric shock, thirst, etc. For instance, an electric fence that delivers electric shocks to cattle trying to cross a boundary is an example of a primary punisher.

About the Author

Tanya Mozias Slavin is a former academic and language teacher. She writes articles about education and linguistic technology, and has published in the Washington Post, Fast Company, CBC and other places. Find her at www.tanyamoziasslavin.com