Secondary Reinforcers: Examples & Definition

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  • 1:14 Everyday Examples
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Chris Clause
In this lesson, you will learn what secondary reinforcers are and what distinguishes them from primary reinforcers. Read on for everyday examples of these reinforcers, and then assess your knowledge with a short quiz.


Reinforcers are essential in the world of operant conditioning. A reinforcer is the vehicle through which reinforcement takes place; it possesses desirable characteristics that encourage organisms to engage in specific behaviors. Assuming the reinforcer is desirable, the organism quickly learns that the more it engages in a specific behavior, the higher the likelihood of receiving the desired reinforcer.

There are two basic types of reinforcers: primary and secondary. Primary reinforcers possess characteristics that allow them to be of innate value to organisms. For example, food is something that has innate biological value, which means the organism is naturally responsive to it. Think of a dog playing dead in order to get a treat. The dog treat has innate value because it fulfills the dog's biological need for food.

Secondary reinforcers, on the other hand, do not have innate value but can still be highly motivating. The value of secondary reinforcers must be learned through experience. Sometimes, secondary reinforcers have value because they can result in access to primary reinforcers. Let's look at a few everyday examples to help you better understand the concept.

Everyday Examples

Let's talk money. Unlike primary reinforcers, money has no innate biological value to people; rather, we learn to value money through experience. It doesn't take long to learn how valuable money can be, which makes it one of the most powerful secondary reinforcers in our culture. To understand the reinforcing power of money, think about all of the things that people will do to get money. People often engage in a wide variety of behaviors, both good and bad, to get ahold of those green, rectangular pieces of paper.

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