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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.

Definition

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.

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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.For our next example, think back to kindergarten. Chances are that your teacher had some variety of an operant conditioning schedule of reinforcement employed to help keep the classroom under control. Maybe your teacher used a star chart, and you were allowed to stick little gold stars next to your name when you passed your spelling test or completed an assignment.

Those gold stars are just stickers – they have no innate biological value, but they sure can be reinforcing. If you had the most stickers, you were probably pretty proud of yourself. Otherwise, you may have tried pretty hard to earn more and catch up with the rest of the class. Perhaps the student with the most stars would earn some sort of reward, like extra recess time. Linking some additional reward to the stickers adds to the value and importance of the stars. The stars themselves were just stickers, but those stickers represented access to extra recess time, making them a secondary reinforcer.Let’s take a look at another school-related example: grades.

Those all-important letters that your teacher scribbles at the top of your history test or on the grade card that goes home for parental review can be highly reinforcing. Do they possess any innate biological value in and of themselves? No, but bringing home an A usually elicits a much more pleasant reaction than bringing home an F. An A is a secondary reinforcer, because it represents something else that has innate value – in this case, a feeling of accomplishment or maybe a smile and a hug from mom and dad.

Lesson Summary

Secondary reinforcers possess qualities that impact behavior. Unlike primary reinforcers, secondary reinforcers have no innate biological value. The value of secondary reinforcers must be learned through experience and association.

Secondary reinforcers, such as money and grades, provide access to other desirable rewards and are an important component of operant conditioning.

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