What is a Premack Principle?

This is a rule that says that recreational activities that cause some form of pleasure can make individuals participate in activities that they don’t find fun. It’s a theory of reinforcement that suggests that a less desired behavior could be reinforced by engaging in a more desired behavior. The Premack principle is credited to its originator, psychologist David Premack.

Before the introduction of the Premack principle, operant conditioning held that reinforcement was dependent on the association of one single behavior and one single consequence. For instance, if students perform well on a test, the studying behavior that led to their success will be reinforced if the instructor compliments them. In 1965, Premack expanded on this idea to demonstrate that one behavior can reinforce another. 

He was studying Cebus monkeys when he noticed that behaviors that an individual spontaneously engages in at a higher frequency are better rewarding than those the individual engages in at a lower frequency. Premack suggested that the high-frequency, more rewarding behaviors can reinforce the low-frequency, less rewarding ones.

After Premack shared his ideas, several studies with both animals and people have supported the principle. Premack himself conducted one of the initial studies. He first determined if his kid participants preferred eating candy or playing pinball. He then used two scenarios: one in which the kids had to play pinball to eat candy and another in which they had to eat candy to play pinball. Premack identified that only the kids who preferred the sequentially second behavior exhibited a reinforcement effect in each situation. 

Brenda Geiger identified that giving seventh and eighth-grade pupils time to play on the playground can reinforce learning by making play dependent on the completion of their tasks in the classroom. Apart from improving learning, this simple reinforcer increased the time students spent on each task and their self-discipline and decreased the need for instructors to discipline them.

The Premack principle has become a hallmark of behavior modification and applied behavior analysis and can successfully be applied in different settings. Two areas where the application of the principle has proven particularly beneficial are dog training and child-rearing. For instance, when teaching a dog playing fetch, the dog has to learn that if it wants to chase the object again (highly desired behavior), it has to bring the object back to its owner and drop it (less desired behavior). 

The Premack principle is utilized all the time with kids. Many parents have told kids that they must finish their homework before they can play a video game or they’ve to eat their vegetables before having dessert. While it can be highly effective with kids of all ages, it’s vital to understand that not all kids are equally encouraged by the same rewards. So, caregivers must decide on the behaviors that are highly motivating to the kids to apply the principle successfully.

The Premack principle has several limitations. For example, an individual’s response to an application is dependent on the context. The person’s preferences and the other activities available to the individual at a given moment will play a role in if the selected reinforcer will generate the less-probable behavior.

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