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The Premack Principle is a famous idea in psychology that can help teachers with classroom management.

In this lesson, learn how the Premack Principle relates to what motivates us as individuals.

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Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation

Imagine you get a day off, and you can do whatever you want with your time. You could go to a movie. You could play video games.

You could take a nap. You could go shopping. Or, you could catch up on reading a good book. We all engage in a wide variety of behaviors simply because we enjoy them, such as hobbies or personal interests.A lot of motivational psychology is based on the idea that many people engage in behaviors because we expect a reward for those behaviors, such as going to work only because we expect to get paid.

We probably wouldn’t work for free. When we engage in a behavior because we expect a reward, psychology says that we have an external or extrinsic motivation for those behaviors.However, we also engage in other behaviors simply because we think they are fun, like the behaviors you might do on a day off. We don’t expect an external reward. Here, the reward is simply the fun of the behaviors themselves.

We find these behaviors enjoyable, relaxing, or challenging, so the action of doing the behaviors IS the reward. Psychology says that this type of behavior is done because of internal or intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is the basis for this lesson’s main topic, the Premack Principle.

The Research of David Premack

Doing activities for the pleasure of them, such as reading, involves intrinsic motivation
Intrinsic Motivation Examples

David Premack was a psychologist in the 1950s and 60s who became interested in studying the internal motivation for particular behaviors. Premack argued that when you consider all of the possible behaviors you might do, such as when you are presented with free time, you could rank order your preference for each behavior, depending on your personality and needs at the time. For example, some people might choose to read a book during their free time, while other people would choose to watch a movie instead.

If reading is your favorite activity, normally you might choose to read, but you also might want to take a break if you just finished reading a really long book and instead do something else, like take a walk. Our intrinsic motivation for a particular behavior can therefore change depending on the situation, our mood, or what we’ve been doing recently.While most people don’t consciously rank order which behaviors they generally prefer over others, Premack said that if you observe another person’s life, the behaviors that occur more often, or the higher probability behaviors, are probably the behaviors that person prefers.For example, let’s say that a teacher is observing her student, Miguel, during recess over a period of one month. Miguel makes sure to spend at least five minutes of every recess playing on the slide. He only plays with the basketball for a few days in the month.

Finally, Miguel only plays on the swings one time, and then just for a few minutes, before he moves on to something else.Premack would say that we can understand Miguel’s intrinsic motivation for each activity by simply rank ordering each activity in terms of its probability. The most common activity was playing on the slide, so if we asked Miguel about his favorite thing to do at recess, he would probably say playing on the slide.

Miguel’s least favorite activity, or the one with the least amount of intrinsic reinforcement, is playing on the swings. We would know this because Miguel almost never plays on the swings.

The Premack Principle

These ideas can be formulated into what is now called the Premack Principle. The Premack Principle states that preferred behaviors, or behaviors with a higher level of intrinsic reinforcement, can be used as rewards, or reinforcements, for less preferred behaviors.Let’s go back to the example of Miguel. If Miguel’s teacher notices that his favorite thing to do is to play on the slide, she can use this information to her advantage.

If the teacher sees that Miguel really doesn’t like to do his math homework, she can try to reinforce him for doing the homework by giving him a reward of five extra minutes on the slide. This reward would probably give Miguel the extra motivation he needs. If Miguel’s teacher had offered a reward that was less interesting to him, such as playing on the swings, that reward would not be very interesting to Miguel.

So, he might not do the math homework.In this way, the Premack Principle can be used in a classroom setting. Teachers who know their students well can give specific rewards to specific students based on the activities they know those students will enjoy.

Another example

The Premack Principle can also be used by individuals to help them motivate themselves.

Imagine that you know you need to spend about ten more hours studying for an upcoming important test. But you don’t really enjoy studying, and the external reward of passing the test seems far away. Your intrinsic motivation to study is low.In order to help motivate yourself, you could give yourself a particularly enticing reward. Let’s say that you enjoy practicing your wicked skateboarding moves, but you know that you should be spending your time studying, instead of skateboarding.

You could combine your interests by setting up a reward. For example, you could decide that for each hour you spend studying for the test, you will allow yourself 15 minutes of skateboarding. In this way, you’ll be more motivated to do the less desirable activity of studying by using the more desirable activity of skateboarding as the reward.A famous example of how the Premack Principle could be applied in a classroom setting was a teacher who had trouble keeping her students quiet and on task; they kept getting up from their seats, talking, and laughing during the lessons. So, the teacher told the students that if they could be very quiet and focused during the entire lesson, they could have a few minutes of running around and yelling before the next lesson began.

This bargain worked very well. During the break, the students appeared to be very unruly with behaviors such as pushing the teacher around in the wheeled desk chair. However, the few minutes of unruly behavior allowed the students to have a reward for spending the rest of the time doing their work.

Lesson Summary

In summary, Premack was a psychologist who studied people’s intrinsic motivation for certain behaviors.

Behaviors guided by intrinsic motivation are those we do simply because we find them enjoyable. The Premack Principle states that we can use more enjoyable, or more intrinsically motivated behaviors, as rewards for less intrinsically motivated behaviors. Techniques based on the Premack Principle are very useful for teachers because they can allow teachers to know what rewards will work on certain students and what rewards will not.

Lesson Objectives

After watching this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Define extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation
  • Identify David Premack and describe the Premack Principle
  • Understand how the Premack Principle can be applied by both teachers and students

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