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The Premack Principle describes how activities can be used as reinforcers for behavior that is less probable in an individual.

In this lesson, you’ll learn more about the principle and see some examples of how to use it in your life.

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The Premack Principle Defined

Parker is a child who prefers playing outside to reading. In order to get him to read more, his mother tells him that if he reads for 15 minutes, he can play outside for 20 minutes. In this situation, Parker’s mother is using a high probability behavior (playing outside) to reinforce a low probability behavior (reading), which illustrates the Premack principle.The Premack principle was developed by David Premack in 1965. During that time, psychologists were focused on behaviorism and were studying instrumental conditioning, which involved attempting to change behavior by tying it to certain consequences.

For example, rats might be taught to press a lever for a food reward, or they might be taught to avoid a lever by getting a shock when they press it.As instrumental conditioning was being studied and developed, psychologists looked to define what made something an effective reinforcer. Some psychologists considered food to be highly reinforcing because it satisfied a biological need. However, Premack took issue with this. In looking at experiments in which animals received food rewards, he noted that the animals were food deprived.

Thus, they were highly likely to engage in behaviors that would lead to eating.Instead of looking at how a reinforcer satisfied a need, Premack suggested that we look at the probability that a response will occur. In doing so, he developed the Premack principle, which can be stated as: the opportunity to perform a high probability response after a low probability response will reinforce the low probability behavior.

Premack’s Experiment

Premack is suggesting that there is nothing special about a reinforcer; instead, we need to look at behavioral probabilities to determine what will be a meaningful reinforcer for someone. In one of Premack’s first experiments on this principle, he examined candy eating and playing pinball as reinforcers in children. First, he brought a group of children into the lab and determined their preferences.

Some of the children preferred playing pinball, while others preferred eating candy. In the second phase of the experiment, children had to eat candy in order to get access to the reinforcing activity of playing pinball. Or they had to play pinball to get access to the candy reinforcement.Children who found pinball to be more reinforcing than candy did not show a reinforcement effect when they played pinball before eating candy. However, when they ate candy first and played pinball after, they did show a reinforcement effect.

That is, the likelihood of eating candy increased if they knew they would get pinball afterward. This confirmed Premack’s theory that anything can be used as a reinforcer as long as it is something that the individual is likely to engage in. As a result, we can use behavioral probabilities to determine what will be reinforcing to someone and to change their behavior.

The Premack Principle in Action

The Premack principle can be used in a variety of settings to increase the likelihood of low probability behaviors. Parents use the Premack principle when they ask children to eat their dinner (low probability behavior) before eating dessert (high probability behavior).

Over time, the child learns to eat dinner in order to gain access to the preferred behavior of eating dessert.Teachers can use the Premack principle in the classroom as well. Say that John loves math but hates music class. His teacher could use math as a reinforcer for music. If John participates in music class, then he can have the opportunity to engage in his preferred activity of math.Psychologists and other clinicians can also use the Premack Principle in therapy. Individuals with autism, schizophrenia, or other mental or emotional disorders can be treated by using highly reinforcing activities to promote low probability behaviors.

One way to make the use of the Premack principle more effective is to remember to present the more appealing option first. For example, when talking to a child you might say, ‘We can have cheesecake later, if you eat your broccoli now.’ This way the child first focuses on the reward.

Lesson Summary

In this lesson, you learned about the Premack principle, which states that high probability behaviors can be used to reinforce low probability behaviors.

You also examined some potential examples of the Premack principle and places where it can be used. To reinforce these ideas, think about your own behavior. What do you find reinforcing? What do you find unpleasant? How might you use this information to help you improve your behavior? For example, perhaps if you study the Premack principle now for 15 minutes, you might spend the following 10 minutes playing video games.

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