What is a Primary Reinforcer?

This is an outcome that satisfies a basic necessity. A primary reinforcer refers to a stimulus that’s biologically vital to an organism, such as sleep, water, food, safety, sex, pleasure, and shelter. It results in involuntary responses, such as drooling, recoiling, and trembling. A primary reinforcer is also called an unconditioned stimulus or unconditioned reinforcer. These reinforcers help in the survival of species in the long run. Here’re detailed examples of two primary reinforcers.

Safety: When one touches a scorching iron, the person’s hand recoils automatically to avoid burning. This is a protective mechanism. The primary reinforcer is the scalding touch that reinforces automatic hand withdrawal.

Hunger: When an infant is hungry, it cries. The caretaker then feeds it to satisfy the hunger. This is a survival reflex that doesn’t need learning. Here, the primary reinforcer is the hunger that reinforces the crying.

Although primary reinforcers are intrinsic drives that occur naturally, they might influence persons depending on their experiences and genetics. For example, some individuals can tolerate more temperature than others. When they touch a hot object, their withdrawal reflex might not be triggered unless it’s scalding. The ability to tolerate higher temperatures might be inborn or because of repeated encountering in the past.

Advantages of primary reinforcers include:

  •         One doesn’t need to learn using them as they come naturally
  •         The desire to get them doesn’t go away

Disadvantages of primary reinforcers include:

  •         They don’t represent natural environment situations
  •         A person’s response to them might fade or satiate over time
  •         One must use a secondary stimulus to make a primary reinforcer more effective

Primary reinforcers are the most fundamental types of reinforcers responsible for fulfilling different biological drives in organisms. For example, to survive, animals need to eat, and to eat, they need to hunt. Food reinforces the behavior of hunting, thus making it a rewarding process. Working all day makes one sleepy, and sleep helps the person relax, so sleep is a primary reinforcer. A hungry person who is promised food for completing the work is more intrinsically motivated to do it than somebody working for free movie tickets.

Behavior chaining stands for the occurrence of basic individual responses resulting in complex behavior. It involves both primary and secondary reinforcers. Every individual response is reinforced and followed by another until the complex behavior is achieved.

Behavioral psychologists consider behavior a result of learning. Operant conditioning is among the three behavioral models of learning. It was first mentioned by Edward Thorndike and developed by B.F. Skinner. According to them, depriving someone of a primary reinforcer like the food until a particular behavior is performed will notably increase that behavior. Kids who receive a sweet or a toy after throwing a tantrum will increase their acrimonious behavior. If kids only receive attention from their parents when they’re being scolded, that attention can reinforce the misbehavior.

It’s important to understand that what constitutes reinforcement might differ from one person to another. For example, in a classroom setting, one student might find a treat reinforcing while another might be unresponsive to it.

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