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You’ve probably heard the story of Pavlov’s dogs, but did you know this is an example of conditioned reinforcement? Learn more about conditioned reinforcement and how it differs from primary reinforcement.

Then test your knowledge with a quiz.

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What Is Conditioned Reinforcement?

Conditioned reinforcement occurs when a stimulus reinforces, or strengthens, set behaviors through its association with a primary reinforcer. But what does that all mean?

Example of Conditioned Reinforcement

Millie is a first grade teacher who is well known for her delicious treats that she likes to bake for her students. Throughout the week, Millie watches her students closely. Whenever she spots a student who is on-task, following the rules, or exceeding some set classroom expectation, she hands the student a red token. At the end of the week, the students turn in their tokens to receive one of Millie’s treats. As the school year progresses, Millie’s students work harder and harder to get the red tokens, knowing that they can expect a treat at the end of the week.

This is an example of conditioned reinforcement. Millie used the red tokens to reinforce positive student behaviors. She was able to do this by pairing the tokens with food, which is a primary reinforcer. But what is a primary reinforcer?

Conditioned and Primary Reinforcement

Primary reinforcement occurs when a stimulus is naturally able to reinforce behaviors. Primary reinforcers satisfy a biological need and do not require any learning. Examples of primary reinforcers include food, sleep, and water. In order for conditioned reinforcement to occur, there must be a learned association between a stimuli and a primary reinforcer.

For example, red tokens do not naturally reinforce positive student behaviors. However, once the students learned to associate the red tokens with food, the red tokens were able to reinforce positive student behaviors. Another term for conditioned reinforcement is secondary reinforcement.

More Examples of Conditioned Reinforcement

Perhaps the most famous example of conditioned reinforcement is Ivan Pavlov’s experiments with dogs. Pavlov paired food, a primary reinforcer that causes dogs to salivate, with a bell. Whenever Pavlov would present the dogs with food, he would sound the bell. After this process had been repeated several times, the dogs learned to associate the bell with food, so that eventually just the sound of the bell was enough to cause the dogs to salivate.

Another example of conditioned reinforcement is when after seeing that money can be used to acquire food, clothing, and water, people learn to associate money with those things, so that just receiving money is enough to strengthen certain behaviors.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. Conditioned reinforcement occurs when a stimulus has acquired the capacity to reinforce behaviors through its learned association with a primary reinforcer. This is in contrast to primary reinforcement, which is naturally occurring and doesn’t require any learning.

Examples of secondary reinforcement include children performing for red tokens; Pavlov’s dog experiment; and people associating money with the things it can buy and behaving in a way that will allow them to acquire and keep it.

Learning Outcomes

When you are finished, you should be able to:

  • State how conditioned reinforcement can occur
  • Explain what primary reinforcement is
  • Summarize Ivan Pavlov’s dog experiments that proved conditioned reinforcement

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