Rewarding behavior can happen in two ways. Primary reinforcers provide innate satisfaction – think food, water, and sleep. We’re born knowing these feel good. Secondary reinforcers start neutral but gain their power through experience. Their value comes from associating with primary reinforcers.
For example, getting praise feels good because it’s usually linked to something we did right. Money has no inherent value, but we want it because it gets us primary reinforcers. These conditioned reinforcers motivate us through feedback and rewards.
Behavioral psychologists find secondary reinforcement crucial. It’s heavily used in operant conditioning and behavior modification to strengthen actions. Though not rewarding in and of themselves, secondary reinforcers become desirable and effective motivators. Their connection to primal satisfaction gives them influence.
Examples of Secondary Reinforcers
Secondary reinforcers are stimuli that have acquired reinforcing properties through their association with primary reinforcers. Some common examples of secondary reinforcers include:
- Money – Money is a powerful secondary reinforcer that can be exchanged for primary reinforcers like food, shelter, clothing, and other necessities. The reinforcing power of money stems from its acquired association with these primary reinforcers over time.
- Praise – Verbal praise, a good grade, or positive feedback can be strong secondary reinforcers, especially for children. Through repeated pairings with other reinforcers, social praise takes on reinforcing properties itself.
- Grades – Letter grades given to students function as secondary reinforcers, acquiring value through repeated associations with primary reinforcers like praise from parents and teachers. Students are motivated to work for good grades.
- Privileges – Access to activities like time to play video games, staying up late, driving a car, or using technology are common privileges that can serve as secondary reinforcers for appropriate behavior. The reinforcing value lies in limiting access unless earned.
How Secondary Reinforcers Develop
Have you ever wondered how a simple click from a clicker can excite a dog, even without giving them a treat? This is thanks to the power of secondary reinforcers. Let me break it down for you.
Secondary reinforcers are created through classical conditioning, also known as Pavlovian conditioning. It works like this: a neutral stimulus, like a clicker sound, is paired with a primary reinforcer, like a tasty treat, over and over again. Eventually, that neutral clicker sound takes on reinforcing properties of its own.
For example, a dog trainer wants to use a clicker to train a dog. The trainer clicks the clicker and immediately gives the dog yummy food. The food automatically makes the dog happy – it’s an innate primary reinforcer. After repeating this click-treat combo multiple times, the click alone excites the dog, even without the treat. That’s because the click sound has become a secondary reinforcer through its association with food.
So, secondary reinforcers gain their power through their connection to existing primary reinforcers. Unlike primary reinforcers, secondary reinforcers don’t inherently reinforce on their own – they derive their motivational oomph through conditioning. After enough click-treat pairings, the clicker becomes imbued with the reinforcing essence of the food. And that’s how clickers can magically motivate dogs!
Examples of Secondary Reinforcers in Practice
Teachers and students alike know that a little motivation goes a long way in education. Stickers, stars, and points act as a pat on the back for students when they correctly solve problems, finish work, or behave well. These small rewards pair with praise and good grades to encourage students to keep at it.
Psychologists also harness the power of rewards. They use token systems to reinforce positive behavior. Handing out tokens when patients take their medication or attend therapy can increase the likelihood of repeating those beneficial actions. Over time, the tokens become prized – no other reward is required!
Businesses have caught on, too. Sales commissions, bonuses, and monetary perks motivate employees to up their game. Employees can trade points earned for living company values for fun prizes or additional vacation time off. These types of rewards make workers strive for excellence. They want to earn those commissions and days off! It’s a win-win for the company and employees alike.
Advantages of Using Secondary Reinforcers
Rather than relying on primary reinforcers like food or water, behavior programs can tap into the power of secondary reinforcers. These flexible motivators open up a world of possibilities.
Picture this: You’re developing a program for a child who adores Taylor Swift. Her hits could act as secondary reinforcers, rewarding each milestone with a snippet of a favorite song. The options are endless when you can customize motivators around an individual’s passions.
Even better, secondary reinforcers aren’t one-hit wonders. Clap your hands after a kid with autism completes a task at school, and those claps will still pack a reinforcing punch at home. Secondary reinforcers maintain their motivating mojo across settings.
In short, secondary reinforcers provide the adaptability needed for effective behavioral interventions. When reinforcers speak to someone’s interests and translate across environments, skills generalize and stick. It’s a winning approach for putting the power of positive reinforcement to work.
Disadvantages of Secondary Reinforcers
While secondary reinforcers can be useful tools, we’d be remiss not to address their potential pitfalls.
For one, lavish rewards may undermine intrinsic motivation over time. Imagine an avid reader who suddenly earns prizes for finishing books. The external reward could reduce their natural love of reading. Psychologists call this the overjustification effect.
Another issue is reward inflation. Give out the same reinforcer too often, and it loses its power, forcing you to up the ante just to get the same response. This spiral leaves people perpetually unsatisfied.
Rigid reinforcement schedules also have downsides. Following cookie-cutter programs to the letter discourages creativity, flexibility, and authenticity. People feel controlled, not motivated.
And if we’re being fully transparent, incentives can sometimes cross ethical lines—autonomy and dignity matter. We have to be mindful of unintentionally manipulating people.
Lastly, taken too far, secondary reinforcers create obsession and addiction. Gamification’s points and badges can become compulsive goals that displace real sources of meaning.
While powerful, rewards clearly demand judicious use. By staying self-aware and prioritizing intrinsic motivation, we can harness their benefits while avoiding pitfalls. What matters most is people’s natural drive to learn and grow.
Secondary Reinforcer vs. Primary Reinforcer
Primary and secondary reinforcers are key concepts in behavioral psychology related to reinforcement and behavioral conditioning. Here are the key differences between them:
|Biological in nature and satisfy a basic survival need.
|Derived or learned through association with primary reinforcers or other secondary reinforcers.
|Food, water, sleep, sexual gratification, and pain relief.
|Money, grades in school, social status, praise, and trophies.
|Not dependent on learning or conditioning.
|Dependent on learning or conditioning.
|Change over Time
|Satisfaction level generally remains stable over time.
|Can change over time in their effectiveness as the associations can change.
|Motivate all individuals universally due to basic needs.
|Motivation varies individually based on personal values, experiences, and learned associations.
What Gets Rewarded Gets Repeated
Secondary reinforcers are an incredibly valuable tool for shaping behavior. Their versatility allows them to be widely applied across behavior modification programs. But like any powerful technique, they must be used thoughtfully.
Research shows these reinforcers can enhance or undermine intrinsic motivation, depending on how they are implemented. More studies comparing types of reinforcers in different contexts would let us fine-tune best practices. However, research confirms the benefits of secondary reinforcers when used carefully.
These flexible rewards let us target behaviors ranging from social skills to academics. Their strength lies in linking new behaviors to already powerful incentives. A point system, for example, connects desired actions to eventually earning privileges or prizes.
Used judiciously, secondary reinforcers are a cornerstone of behavior modification. But we must continue studying their nuances. With thoughtful application, these powerful rewards can shape behaviors incredibly positively.