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Premack Principle: Definition & Example

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  • 0:00 The Premack Principle Defined
  • 2:00 Premack's Experiment
  • 3:34 The Premack Principle…
  • 4:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Gina Mitchell
The Premack Principle describes how activities can be used as reinforcers for behavior that is less probable in an individual. In this lesson, you'll learn more about the principle and see some examples of how to use it in your life.

The Premack Principle Defined

Parker is a child who prefers playing outside to reading. In order to get him to read more, his mother tells him that if he reads for 15 minutes, he can play outside for 20 minutes. In this situation, Parker's mother is using a high probability behavior (playing outside) to reinforce a low probability behavior (reading), which illustrates the Premack principle.

The Premack principle was developed by David Premack in 1965. During that time, psychologists were focused on behaviorism and were studying instrumental conditioning, which involved attempting to change behavior by tying it to certain consequences. For example, rats might be taught to press a lever for a food reward, or they might be taught to avoid a lever by getting a shock when they press it.

As instrumental conditioning was being studied and developed, psychologists looked to define what made something an effective reinforcer. Some psychologists considered food to be highly reinforcing because it satisfied a biological need. However, Premack took issue with this. In looking at experiments in which animals received food rewards, he noted that the animals were food deprived. Thus, they were highly likely to engage in behaviors that would lead to eating.

Instead of looking at how a reinforcer satisfied a need, Premack suggested that we look at the probability that a response will occur. In doing so, he developed the Premack principle, which can be stated as: the opportunity to perform a high probability response after a low probability response will reinforce the low probability behavior.

Premack's Experiment

Premack is suggesting that there is nothing special about a reinforcer; instead, we need to look at behavioral probabilities to determine what will be a meaningful reinforcer for someone. In one of Premack's first experiments on this principle, he examined candy eating and playing pinball as reinforcers in children. First, he brought a group of children into the lab and determined their preferences. Some of the children preferred playing pinball, while others preferred eating candy. In the second phase of the experiment, children had to eat candy in order to get access to the reinforcing activity of playing pinball. Or they had to play pinball to get access to the candy reinforcement.

Children who found pinball to be more reinforcing than candy did not show a reinforcement effect when they played pinball before eating candy. However, when they ate candy first and played pinball after, they did show a reinforcement effect. That is, the likelihood of eating candy increased if they knew they would get pinball afterward. This confirmed Premack's theory that anything can be used as a reinforcer as long as it is something that the individual is likely to engage in. As a result, we can use behavioral probabilities to determine what will be reinforcing to someone and to change their behavior.

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