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Explanation of Primary and Secondary Reinforcement With Examples

Explanation of Primary and Secondary Reinforcement With Examples
Reinforcement, as per its nature, can be categorized into two types: 'Primary' and Secondary' reinforcement. PsycholoGenie provides an in-depth explanation of both, and also cites some examples for the better understanding of this concept. Take a look!
Vibhav Gaonkar
Last Updated: Feb 26, 2018
Secondary Reinforcement and Humans
Human behavior, in most cases, is rewarded by the means of secondary reinforcement. If you look pretty, you'll get a compliment; if you win a lottery, you'll receive a prize; if you answer correctly, you'll pass the exam; and the like.
Before moving towards primary or secondary reinforcement, it's essential to understand a bit about the concept of reinforcement in psychology. In very simple terms, reinforcement is any stimulus that strengthens some sort of behavior or response. Reinforced behavior is likely to be repeated.

For instance, giving a candy to a child for putting away his/her toys after play. The candy in this case is the reinforcer, whereas putting the toys away is the rewarded behavior. Therefore, by reinforcing a child's behavior by presenting a candy, the child is likely to repeat this behavior in future.

Now that we know the basics of reinforcement, let's learn about the aforementioned types of reinforcement in detail.
Primary and Secondary Reinforcers: Definition and Examples
Primary Reinforcement
➔ Primary reinforcement is the most basic form of reinforcement. These reinforcers satiate the basic biological drives in an organism. Types include food, water, air, sleep, sex. Primary reinforcement, in the long run, aids in the survival of species.
Secondary Reinforcement
➔ Secondary reinforcement is associated with primary reinforcement. It includes the process of learning or conditioning in order to understand the association. For example, food is a primary reinforcer, money buys food. Therefore, money, in this case, is a secondary reinforcer; its value is relative to the primary reinforcer, which in this case is food. If it was declared that all one dollar notes wouldn't be accepted as currency, they would not be considered as reinforcement anymore.
➔ Thence, the knowledge (as a result of conditioning) that money buys food, makes money a secondary reinforcer. Secondary reinforcement is most evident in humans.
Examples of Primary Reinforcers
➔ Primary reinforcers, as mentioned earlier, are the most basic types of reinforcers responsible for satisfying the different biological drives in organisms. To survive, animals require to eat, and to eat they require to hunt. None of this is purposely learned. The behavior of hunting is reinforced by food, thus making hunting a rewarding process; hunting satiates the hunger drive. Herbivores, on the other hand, would search (behavior) for grazing grounds and grasslands, in order to acquire food
➔ Working all day makes you sleepy, sleep helps you relax, therefore sleep is a primary reinforcer. Likewise, water, air, and sex, all count as primary reinforcers; they increase the likeliness of recurrence, of survival-aiding behavior.
Examples of Secondary Reinforcers
➔ Any and every organism would do activities that ultimately help it live and survive effectively. However, we humans apart from survival, look forward to making our lives better. Being complex organisms, both physically and mentally, we rely mostly on reinforcement that is in some way associated to healthy survival of our species. This type of reinforcement is called secondary reinforcement.
➔ Even though we are omnivores, we do not go hunting in the forest, neither do we graze on grasslands. We have different ways to acquire food. Humans work, for which they get money, money buys food, and food satiates hunger, thus aiding survival. Therefore, money is the secondary reinforcer.

➔ Let's take another example. Humans feel sleepy because they're tired. Before hitting the bed, we brush our teeth, say a bedtime prayer, wish good night to people at home, and then go to sleep. This becomes a ritual, and is associated to the behavior of sleeping. Therefore, even if you aren't tired someday, and don't feel sleepy; performing the ritual would involuntarily hint your body that it's time to sleep, and your body would prepare itself to sleep. So in this case, the ritual becomes a secondary reinforcer.

➔ A very popular example for secondary or conditioned reinforcement is Ivan Pavlov's experiment of classical conditioning. In this experiment, Pavlov rings a bell, and quickly presents food to his dog to which the dog salivates. After repeatedly carrying out this practice, the dog learns to associate the bell with food, and salivates when the bell is rung (even if food isn't presented.) A similar approach is used in dog training.

➔ Another experiment by B. F. Skinner on operant conditioning further illustrates that conditioning or learning occurs when a certain response is repeatedly reinforced.
Primary and Secondary Reinforcers in Behavior Chaining
➔ Behavior chaining involves both primary as well as secondary reinforcements. Behavior chaining refers to the occurrence of simple individual responses leading to a complex behavior. Each individual response is reinforced, and is followed by another response till the complex behavior is accomplished.
➔ Let's take an example. A boy is hungry, he walks to a nearby diner. He enters by opening the door and walks to the counter. He then searches his pocket for money and takes out a ten-dollar note. He orders a meal and pays for it. He eats and leaves. If you noticed, the incident is divided into fragments denoting individual responses. These responses are driven by a biological drive, thus ultimately leading to its satisfaction.

➔ The boy is hungry (biological drive). He walks to the diner (individual response), he reaches the diner (reinforcement). He opens the door (individual response), he enters (reinforcement). He walks to the counter (individual response), he reaches the counter (reinforcement). He searches his pocket for money (individual response), he pulls out a ten-dollar note (reinforcement). He orders a meal (individual response), he gets a meal (reinforcement). He eats (individual response), he is no more hungry (biological drive satiated). He leaves (individual response), he reaches (reinforcement).

➔ From the above example, it can be clearly seen that an individual response when reinforced, also points out (provides a cue) to the next response. For instance, when the boy searches his pocket, he finds a ten-dollar note, which is a cue to the next response of ordering food. In case his activity of searching for money wasn't reinforced (getting money), the chain of responses would break.

➔ If we take a wider look at the above example, we can classify all the reinforcements into primary and secondary. The satisfaction of hunger followed by eating is a primary reinforcement, whereas all other reinforcements are secondary reinforcements.

➔ Behavior chaining has been found useful in teaching autistic children several basic skills, self-help activities, vocational tasks, and logical communication.
From the above explanation of primary and secondary reinforcement, it is quite clear that the former is biological, whereas the latter is learned. The former is more common in animals, whereas the latter is evident in humans.
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