Reinforcement is a process in which a stimulus strengthens a behavior. This strengthening can be measured by an increase in the frequency or duration of the behavior. It is the opposite of punishment, which decreases or eliminates the frequency or duration of behaviors.
The primary reinforcer is the most basic reinforcer. It orients the behavior of a subject in one direction or another, regardless of its consequences. If we are hungry, it’s an appetite that motivates us to eat, even if it’s not immediately rewarding or fitness-boosting. This article aims to dive deep into primary reinforcement.
What Is Primary Reinforcement?
Primary reinforcement is any stimulus that is naturally rewarding for an organism. In operant conditioning, primary reinforcement is any stimulus that, when presented, increases the frequency of behavior and is the simplest type of reinforcement.
A primary reinforcer, also known as an unconditioned reinforcer, is a stimulus that is inherently rewarding to an individual. Primary reinforcers have no association with rewards or punishment and therefore require no conditioning to be effective.
This reinforcement relates to basic survival needs, such as food, water, and sex. All animals are born with an innate desire for primary reinforcers, including humans.
How Does Primary Reinforcement Work?
Primary reinforcement is a powerful motivator for behaviors because it can directly satisfy biological needs. For example, if a person is hungry, eating will satisfy the need for food and make the person feel better.
To understand how primary reinforcement works, it’s crucial to understand how operant conditioning works. Operant conditioning occurs when an individual learns to associate an action with consequences — rewards or punishments — that follow it. The association between the action and its consequences helps shape future behavior.
For example, suppose a child receives candy after completing his homework every day for one week. After this happens, he may begin doing his homework as soon as he gets home from school because he knows that if he does, he’ll get another piece of candy later.
This means that his actions are being reinforced by the reward (candy). If no candy were given after completing homework, he would eventually stop doing it since there wouldn’t be any incentive to do so anymore.
Related Read: What Is Unconditioned Stimulus?
Why Does Primary Reinforcement Work?
The answer is simple. Primary reinforcement works because it stimulates the brain’s reward system.
The reward system is a collection of neural pathways responsible for processing pleasure-related stimuli. When we engage in an activity that produces a pleasurable sensation, our brains release a dopamine neurotransmitter, which activates the reward system. In short, primary rewards (like food) stimulate dopamine release.
If you want to understand why primary reinforcers work so well, look at how they affect dopamine levels in the brain.
Several studies have shown that high concentrations of dopamine are associated with feelings of euphoria, satisfaction, and pleasure — all things that motivate us to seek out more primary rewards like food, sex, or water.
Primary Reinforcement vs. Secondary Reinforcement: The Difference
Primary reinforcement is a reward that increases the likelihood of a behavior. Secondary reinforcement is a reward that strengthens previously-learned behavior.
Primary reinforcers, such as food and water, are inherently rewarding. They do not require any prior conditioning to have their reinforcing qualities. All animals are born with an innate desire for primary reinforcers. For example, food would be your primary reinforcer if you were stranded on a desert island.
Secondary reinforcers are stimuli associated with primary reinforcers through classical conditioning or operant conditioning processes. For example, if you eat ice cream when you go out on Friday nights with your friends, then ice cream will become a secondary reinforcer because it has been conditioned to be paired with socializing with friends.
After enough pairings between two stimuli (socialization and ice cream), they eventually become inseparable in your mind and behave as one unit, making ice cream a secondary reinforcer.
Related Read: What Do You Need to Know About Social Reinforcement?
Several characteristics distinguish primary from secondary reinforcers, such as:
Innate vs. Learned: Primary reinforcers are innate, meaning they have an evolutionary basis and thus would have been present in the ancestral environment of our species. Secondary reinforcers are learned and acquired through experience with the environment and are not present in the ancestral environment.
Intense vs. weak: Primary reinforcers tend to be more intense than secondary reinforcers. For example, food is more rewarding than water, or sex is more rewarding than touch.
Irresistible vs. resistible: A primary reinforcer is irresistible, whereas a secondary reinforcer can be resisted if it’s not worth it to an individual, given the costs involved with consuming or using it (e.g. if you’re thirsty but there’s no water around).
Unconditional vs. conditioned: A primary reinforcer is unconditionally effective, whereas a secondary reinforcer is conditional.
Primary Reinforcers are responses that naturally move us toward a goal, like eating food to relieve hunger. Secondary Reinforcers are responses that we learned to be rewarding through experience, like seeing an “A+” on a test scoresheet.
It’s important to recognize these in your own life because if you focus on adverse events and feelings as primary stimuli for your compulsive behaviors, you will never be able to rid yourself of them completely. That’s why it’s so important to use positive feelings and rewards as stimuli for your compulsive behavior–keeps you centered on the goal of recovery.
- Neville, V., Dayan, P., Gilchrist, I. D., Paul, E. S., & Mendl, M. (2021). Using primary reinforcement to enhance translatability of a human affect and decision-making judgment bias task. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 33(12), 2523–2535. https://doi.org/10.1162/jocn_a_01776
- Volkow, N. D., Wang, G.-J., & Baler, R. D. (2011). Reward, dopamine and the control of food intake: Implications for obesity. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(1), 37–46. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2010.11.001