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The Difference Between Primary & Secondary Reinforcers

Updated July 19, 2017

Primary and secondary reinforcement are both forms of positive reinforcement which is the process of rewarding a behaviour. Primary reinforcement involves a reward that fulfils a biological need. Secondary reinforcement is reinforcement associated with the fulfilment of that need.

Primary Reinforcement

Primary reinforcement fulfils a biological need; examples include food, shelter, water and the like. Giving a dog a treat for sitting down is an example of primary reinforcement.

Secondary Reinforcement

Secondary reinforcement is associated with the fulfilment of a biological need. For example: If a dog owner were to give his pet a treat for sitting down, and the dog began to associate the sound of the bag opening with the treat, the dog would be responding to secondary reinforcement. The sound of the bag is a reminder of the primary reinforce (i.e. the treat), thus just hearing the bag open may cause the dog to sit.

Example of Primary and Secondary Reinforcement in Action

A child goes to touch a teapot that is whistling. The child hears the whistle (secondary reinforcer), touches the teapot and is burnt (primary reinforcer). The child will begin to associate the whistling sound with a hot teapot, as she was burnt, (a positive reinforcer), she will avoid touching whistling teapots.

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About the Author

Christine Wyman started writing professionally in 2008 after a long stint writing papers at university. Her interests include modern psychological practices, anthropology, sociology and other eclectic pursuits. She is a graduate of Valparaiso University's Clinical Mental Health Counseling program. She possesses a Bachelor of Science in psychology with a minor in sociology, and a Masters of Arts in clinical mental health counseling.