Primary Reinforcers: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Are Primary Reinforcers?
  • 0:40 Everyday Examples
  • 2:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Chris Clause
In this lesson, you will learn what primary reinforcers are and look at three everyday examples to help you better understand the concept. Then, you can test your knowledge with a short quiz.

What Are Primary Reinforcers?

What do dog biscuits, electric shocks and caffeine have in common? Each one of these is a primary reinforcer. These important elements of operant conditioning, like all types of reinforcers, are used to reward specific behavioral responses. What separates them from other types of reinforcers is that they are of innate biological value to the organism. Other rewards, such as money, can be very reinforcing too, but money itself does not have any innate value. People must learn to value money, whereas we don't have to learn the value of primary reinforcers; it just comes naturally. Let's look at a few examples to help better understand the concept.

Everyday Examples

Say you're trying to teach your dog to roll over. Once your dog rolls over for the first time, whether on purpose or by accident, you immediately give him one of his favorite dog biscuits. The next time he rolls over, you do it again, until eventually he associates rolling over with those yummy biscuits. The biscuit, which satisfies your dog's biological need for food, possesses innate properties that make it automatically reinforcing. Your dog doesn't need to learn that the biscuit is yummy; it has known dog biscuits are yummy since it was a puppy.

Pain can also be used as a primary reinforcer. Pain possesses innate biological properties that can have a significant impact on behavior. Unlike a dog biscuit, which is generally something organisms will work to earn, pain is something that most organisms will work to avoid. For this example, let's stick with that dog of yours: Say your dog loves being outside, but you don't want him to run away, so you install an invisible electric fence. It doesn't take long for your dog to realize that, as soon as he leaves the yard, he receives a painful shock. The avoidance of pain will alter his behavior, and he will stay within your yard to make sure that he keeps that painful negative reinforcer at bay. Just like biscuits are naturally yummy, dogs don't need to learn that pain is undesirable - it just is.

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