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Reinforcer: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Reinforcers in Everyday Life
  • 1:45 Positive Reinforcers
  • 2:16 Negative Reinforcers
  • 2:42 Primary Reinforcers
  • 3:01 Secondary Reinforcers
  • 4:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

A reinforcer is something that increases the likelihood that a specific behavior or response will occur. Explore the different types of reinforcers, learn from examples, and test your knowledge with a quiz.

Reinforcers in Everyday Life

Imagine that you are student taking a course on the prevention of mental health disorders. Each week in this class you have a quiz on a chapter in your book. Your teacher encourages you and your classmates to go out and find real-world examples of programs that prevent mental health disorders and write a one-paragraph summary.

You frown at the idea of having more work in the class and decide not to do the summaries since they are not required. Your teacher also adds that for each summary you complete, you get to skip a quiz. Hmm, now you're interested! You turn in a summary every week so that you never have to complete a quiz in the course.

In this example, not having to take a quiz is a reinforcer. A reinforcer is something that increases the likelihood that a specific behavior or response will occur. Reinforcers occur after the response or behavior that you want to increase. A quiz is skipped (reinforcer) only after the summary of a prevention program is completed (behavior). Parents who want to increase the likelihood that their children clean their rooms praise the child (reinforcer) after the room is cleaned (behavior).

You probably use reinforcers everyday without even realizing it. Have you ever told a friend that she looks nice when she dresses up? Perhaps you have praised a roommate after he or she has cleaned your apartment. You pay your bills on time to avoid late fees. These are all examples of things that increase the likelihood that a behavior or response will be repeated.

Reinforcements can be either positive or negative. Both positive and negative reinforcers increase the likelihood that a specific behavior or response will occur; however, the difference is that positive reinforcers add something, while negative reinforcers take something away.

Positive Reinforcers

Have you ever praised someone after they've done something you like? If so, you have used positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is the addition of a consequence that increases the likelihood that a specific behavior or response will occur. For example, adding praise after a child has cleaned their room increases the likelihood that they will clean their room in the future. Receiving an 'A' after working hard on an assignment increases the likelihood that you will work hard on future assignments.

Negative Reinforcers

Negative reinforcement is the removal of a negative consequence in order to increase the likelihood that a behavior or response will occur. Removal of the weekly quiz in order to increase the likelihood that students will complete the summaries is an example of a negative reinforcer. A parent might decide to let their children stay up later after the children have done all of their homework for the week in advance. The removal of the normal bed time is a negative reinforcer.

Primary Reinforcers

Food and water are examples of primary reinforcers. They are rooted in our biology and do not need to be learned. Food and water both satisfy basic biological needs and are naturally reinforcing in themselves. Primary reinforcers are also called unconditioned reinforcers.

Secondary Reinforcers

Most reinforcers that we notice in our lives are secondary reinforcers. Also referred to as conditioned reinforcers, secondary reinforcers are not naturally reinforcing. They only become reinforcing after they are paired with a primary reinforcer.

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