What Is Secondary Reinforcement?

When the pleasure from the reward is still experienced after it has been removed, the person will associate more satisfaction with that reward. Unlike primary reinforcement, secondary reinforcement does not naturally occur in many situations and must be taught. Primary reinforcement occurs naturally when a person considers it rewarding; for example, a happy event produces feelings of elation or joy.

Secondary reinforcers are a little different from primary reinforcers. Primary reinforcers must be related to the behavior. If you want your dog to sit, he has to sit when you give him a treat. The stimulus is related to the behavior with secondary reinforcers, but the link is less obvious. Let’s learn more about it in this article.

What Is Secondary Reinforcement?

Secondary reinforcement is a phenomenon in which a behavior or response is reinforced by something other than the primary reinforcement. The primary reinforcement is directly related to the behavior and can be described as an innate reinforcing factor for that particular behavior. For example, food is a primary reinforcement for the behavior of eating.

Secondary reinforcement is when a stimulus is paired with a primary reinforcer and reinforces itself through repeated association with the primary reinforcer. For example, a bell might be paired with food for several conditioning trials and eventually evoke salivation upon presenting just the bell without food. The bell has become a secondary reinforcer due to its repeated pairing with food.

Another example of secondary reinforcement is a dog trained to associate bells ringing with being fed. In this case, the bells are secondary reinforcers. The dog can learn to respond to the bell alone because it has associated it with food.

Primary Reinforcement vs. Secondary Reinforcement

Understanding how secondary reinforcement works helps to know that there are two types of reinforcement: primary and secondary.

Primary reinforcers are rewards in themselves, like food or water. In the above example, primary reinforcers don’t have to be taught to the dog; he instinctively knows they’re good things because they meet some strong need, like hunger or thirst.

Secondary reinforcers aren’t inherently rewarding; instead, they’re linked to something else that is rewarding — something that has already been learned as a primary reinforcer. When a reinforcer is paired with a neutral stimulus, it becomes a conditioned reinforcer.

secondary reinforcement

In the above example, when a neutral stimulus (such as a bell) is paired with food, the sound of the bell becomes associated with the food and eventually functions as a reinforcer. A secondary reinforcer can be anything that has acquired its reinforcing properties through learning.

Reinforcement and Operant Conditioning

Reinforcement and punishment are essential concepts in operant conditioning. They help us explain why certain behaviors often happen more (or less). Reinforcement strengthens a behavior, while punishment weakens it. In operant conditioning, reinforcement is further divided into positive and negative reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement occurs when we’re rewarded with something good due to our actions, such as receiving praise or money for doing a good job. Negative reinforcement occurs when we’re rewarded with something terrible removed from our actions.

Consider a situation where you want to increase a person’s performance on a task, such as finishing their homework or doing better at work, so you decide to reward them each time they do it. By rewarding them for doing that task, you’re reinforcing that behavior because it increases the likelihood of it occurring again in the future. This type of reinforcement is known as positive reinforcement because your actions positively affect others.

On the other hand, punishment weakens a behavior by giving someone an unpleasant consequence or taking away a pleasant result to action. Both positive and negative involve using reinforcements to help increase the frequency of an activity or behavior. In both cases, we reinforce an action by rewarding it somehow. We reward it with something positive (positive reinforcement) or eliminate something negative (negative reinforcement).

While negative reinforcement and punishment decrease the response they follow, they are not the same. Negative reinforcement increases a behavior, but punishment decreases a behavior.

So, What’s the Difference Between Negative Reinforcement and Punishment?

There is a distinct difference between negative reinforcement and punishment. Negative reinforcement is not punishment. You can use negative reinforcement to increase desirable behaviors.

Let’s take the example of Mario. If he chooses to do his homework when we take away his video game privileges, then negative reinforcement has been applied because his behavior (deciding to do his homework) has increased (he will do it more often in the future because he wants to avoid losing his video game privileges).

On the other hand, punishment would be if we took away Mario’s video game privileges after not doing his homework for an entire week. His behavior (not doing his homework) has decreased (he will be more likely to do it in the future because he does not want to lose his video game privileges).

Examples of Secondary Reinforcement

Here are some examples of secondary reinforcement:

  • People receive flowers from their significant other after completing a big project at work. The person may begin to associate receiving flowers with a job well done and may continue to work hard in the future.
  • A child begins to associate good grades with positive feedback from their parents. They may then work harder in school to get more positive feedback.
  • A person starts wearing red clothing with increased attention from people of the opposite sex. They may then begin wearing red dresses more often when they get more attention from others.
  • Monetary rewards for work. Money is not a primary reinforcer but can be exchanged for primary reinforcers such as food and shelter and reinforce behavior. The same goes for tokens (poker chips) or points (frequent flyer miles).

Advantages of Secondary Reinforcement

The main advantage of secondary reinforcement is that it makes learning new behaviors very easy. Unlike primary reinforcers, which are inherently rewarding and may not always be available in all situations, secondary reinforcers can be anything associated with primary ones.

This can make learning new behaviors much easier because they can be reinforced with whatever the most convenient reward may be. For example, money may not be available while shopping, but food can still serve as a reward for checking out quickly at the store.

Secondary reinforcers have the following advantages over primary reinforcers:

  • The acquisition of secondary reinforcers is relatively easy and inexpensive because there are already so many things in our lives that have secondary reinforcing properties due to their links with other primary reinforcers, such as money or praise.
  • In the case of animal training, the trainer doesn’t need to have a complete understanding of how every individual animal values different types of reinforcers. Instead, they can use secondary reinforcers and let each animal work out what they love most by choosing what they want most often.
  • It can be presented more rapidly than primary reinforcers and eliminates the time required to deliver primary reinforcers.
  • Unlike primary reinforcers, secondary reinforcers are not naturally rewarding. They can be controlled and administered by someone other than the individual receiving reinforcement.
  • They can be removed from the environment if the behavior being reinforced is undesirable. They provide an opportunity to shape complex behaviors because they are more easily manipulated than primary reinforcers.

Final Thoughts

The learning theory behind secondary reinforcement is sound: a reward for completing something is more powerful than before you start. And using freedom as a bonus is a great idea too.

For this reason, secondary reinforcement is one of the most effective methods used by psychologists. It is simple and easy to use, making it a popular method for practitioners in the field. It can treat many psychological problems, such as eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression.


  • Iversen, I. H. (1992). Skinner’s early research: From reflexology to operant conditioning. American Psychologist, 47(11), 1318–1328.
  • Jowett Hirst, E. S., Dozier, C. L., & Payne, S. W. (2016). Efficacy of and preference for reinforcement and response cost in token economies. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 49(2), 329–345.

Hi, I am Happy. I'm a professional writer and psychology enthusiast. I love to read and write about human behaviors, the mind, mental health-related topics, and more.