Conditioned Reinforcement: Definition & Explanation

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  • 0:05 What Is Conditioned…
  • 0:13 Example
  • 1:04 Conditioned and…
  • 1:53 More Examples
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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.

You've probably heard the story of Pavlov's dogs, but did you know this is an example of conditioned reinforcement? Learn more about conditioned reinforcement and how it differs from primary reinforcement. Then test your knowledge with a quiz.

What Is Conditioned Reinforcement?

Conditioned reinforcement occurs when a stimulus reinforces, or strengthens, set behaviors through its association with a primary reinforcer. But what does that all mean?

Example of Conditioned Reinforcement

Millie is a first grade teacher who is well known for her delicious treats that she likes to bake for her students. Throughout the week, Millie watches her students closely. Whenever she spots a student who is on-task, following the rules, or exceeding some set classroom expectation, she hands the student a red token. At the end of the week, the students turn in their tokens to receive one of Millie's treats. As the school year progresses, Millie's students work harder and harder to get the red tokens, knowing that they can expect a treat at the end of the week.

This is an example of conditioned reinforcement. Millie used the red tokens to reinforce positive student behaviors. She was able to do this by pairing the tokens with food, which is a primary reinforcer. But what is a primary reinforcer?

Conditioned and Primary Reinforcement

Primary reinforcement occurs when a stimulus is naturally able to reinforce behaviors. Primary reinforcers satisfy a biological need and do not require any learning. Examples of primary reinforcers include food, sleep, and water. In order for conditioned reinforcement to occur, there must be a learned association between a stimuli and a primary reinforcer. For example, red tokens do not naturally reinforce positive student behaviors. However, once the students learned to associate the red tokens with food, the red tokens were able to reinforce positive student behaviors. Another term for conditioned reinforcement is secondary reinforcement.

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