Psychology of Parenting
Psychology – Primary Reinforcer & Reinforcement

Psychology – Primary Reinforcer & Reinforcement

What is the definition of the main reinforcer? What is the role of primary reinforcement in parenting? How can parents and teachers put it to good use? Let’s take a closer look at these issues and see what psychology is involved.

What is Primary Reinforcement and How Does It Work?

A natural reaction to a stimulus is called primary reinforcement. The response is instinctive and does not need much training. A reflex that an organism executes automatically whenever the relevant stimulus is offered is known as primary reinforcement.

When you sense the delectable aroma of your favourite dish, for example, your mouth waters. You don’t have to learn to drool; it’s a natural response.

The majority of main reinforcements are the consequence of evolution to secure the survival of a species. The body optimizes digestion by salivating in anticipation of meal intake.

Defining Primary Reinforcer

A stimulus that is biologically vital to an organism, such as food, water, sleep, shelter, safety, pleasure, and sex, is referred to as a primary reinforcer.

Recoiling, drooling, and trembling are some of the instinctive responses. A primary reinforcer is also known as an unconditioned reinforcer or an unconditioned stimulus in conditioning theories.

Although primary reinforcers are naturally occurring intrinsic impulses, they may have varied effects on various people based on their genetics and experiences.

Some people, for example, can withstand higher temperatures than others. Unless the object is scorching, their withdrawal response may not be triggered when they contact anything hot. The capacity to endure greater temperatures could be inborn, or it could be the result of previous encounters, i.e., an individual may have been educated to react differently (Differential Susceptibility) to the main reinforcer via experience.

Examples Of Primary Reinforcement


A baby screams because she is hungry. After that, her carer feeds her to satisfy her appetite. This is a natural survival response that does not require any training. Hunger is the major reinforcer in this situation, and it promotes crying.


When you touch a hot iron, your hand reflexively recoils to avoid being burned. This reaction serves as a safeguard. The major reinforcer that encourages instinctive hand withdrawal is a scorching touch.

Secondary Reinforcer vs. Primary Reinforcer

What makes a primary reinforcer different from a secondary reinforcer?

Secondary reinforcement, sometimes referred to as conditioned reinforcement, refers to stimuli that have become pleasant as a result of being combined with another reinforcing stimulus. Praise and treats, for example, might be utilized as primary reinforcers while teaching a dog. The sound of a clicker can be linked-to praise and goodies until the sound of the clicker becomes a secondary reinforcer in its own right.

Reinforcement Types

There are two forms of reinforcement in operant conditioning: positive and negative reinforcement. Both of these types of reinforcement have an impact on behaviour but in different ways. The two kinds are as follows:

  • Positive reinforcement entails providing something to elicit a response, such as rewarding a child with a piece of candy after she cleans up her room.
  • Negative reinforcement is when something is taken away in order to promote response, such as eliminating a quiz if all of the students’ schoolwork is turned in for the week. The teacher intends to enhance the desirable behaviour by removing the unpleasant stimuli (the quiz) (completing all homework).

Although these phrases contain the words “positive” and “negative,” it’s crucial to emphasize that Skinner did not use them to signify “good” or “bad.” Instead, consider what these phrases might signify in a mathematical context.

The equivalent of a plus sign, positive denotes that something has been contributed to or applied to the situation. Negative is the opposite of minus, implying that something has been taken away or eliminated from the situation.

Examples from the Real World

Here are a few instances of how reward could be used to influence behaviour in the real world.

Positive Reinforcement
The coach for your workplace softball team calls out, “Great job!” after you toss a pitch during practice. As a result, you’re more likely to pitch the ball the same manner the next time. This is a case of positive reinforcement in action.

Another example is when you surpass your manager’s monthly sales target at work and are given a bonus as part of your compensation. This increases the likelihood that you will attempt to exceed the minimum sales quota again the following month.

Negative Reinforcement
You visit your doctor to receive your regular flu vaccination to avoid contracting the virus. In this scenario, you’re doing something (getting a shot) to avoid being exposed to unpleasant stimuli (getting sick). This is a case of negative reinforcement in action.

Another example is using aloe vera gel to sunburn to make it less painful. This is an example of negative reinforcement since applying the gel to the burn prevents an unpleasant consequence (pain). You will be more inclined to use aloe vera gel again in the future since engaging in the action reduces the likelihood of an adverse result.

If you used acetaminophen to relieve a severe headache, you may have received negative reinforcement. The ache in your head ultimately goes away after approximately 15 or 20 minutes. Because taking the drugs helped you to avoid an unpleasant circumstance, it’s more probable that you’ll use them again to deal with physical discomfort in the future.

Efficiency and Longevity

Because primary reinforcements are biological and play a critical role in survival, they are effective. Secondary reinforcers are rarely as effective as primary reinforcers.

A hungry worker who is offered food in exchange for completing the task is more intrinsically motivated than someone who is working for free movie tickets.

Primary reinforcements are difficult to unlearn since they are necessary for survival.

When a heavy stone falls on your foot, for example, it takes a lot of willpower or training not to scream.

Primary Reinforcer & Reinforcement

The operant conditioning process relies heavily on reinforcement. Reinforcement, when applied correctly, could be an effective learning technique for encouraging good actions while discouraging bad ones.

It’s crucial to keep in mind that what counts as reinforcement differs from person to person. In a school context, one child may find a treat to be encouraging, while another could be uninterested (uninvolved) in such a reward. It’s possible that what’s reinforced comes as a surprise in certain cases.

If a child only gets attention from his parents while he is being chastised, such attention might promote misbehaving. You may acquire a better grasp of how different forms of reward contribute to learning and behaviour by studying more about how reinforcement works.

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