The Premack principle involves offering a pleasurable incentive in exchange for completing an unpleasurable task. It’s also known as the “Grandma’s Law of Reinforcement” based on the idea that grandma offers icecream if you eat your vegetables!
In more scholarly language, we say: if a person chooses to do something less likely (less probable) to happen, then they are rewarded with the chance to do something more likely (more probable).
For example, a child may be asked to clean up their toys before having an ice cream treat. Cleaning up is a less probable behavior compared to having the treatment. It is completed by the child because it is reinforced by the reward (ice cream).
The Premack principle can also be applied in professional settings. Employees may have reduced privileges when they make poor decisions or are late for work which serves as a reinforcer for future punctuality and good decisions.
Definition of Premack Principle
The Premack Principle is a psychological concept developed by David Premack that states that more probable behaviors can reinforce less probable behaviors.
In simple terms, it involves providing an incentive for doing an undesirable behavior. In academic terms, it means that a person will do an unlikely behavior in anticipation of being rewarded with a likely behavior:
“Dr. Premack’s pioneering insight is that an animal’s behavior is reinforced whenever the consequence of that behavior is that the animal gets the opportunity to engage in an activity he would freely choose to do at the moment” (Sdao, 2012, p. 151).
The Premack principle applies operant conditioning principles, suggesting that reinforcements shape behavior over time (Herrod et al., 2002).
It states that positive reinforcement strategies are typically more effective than punishment due to promoting desired behaviors which are further strengthened when rewards are contingent upon performance.
It has been found useful as a form of extrinsic motivation. For example, it’s useful for creating behavior plans for children and adults with special needs, where rewards are used to promote appropriate social skills or academic successes since it creates motivation for future performance.
Simply, the Premack principle suggests that reinforcement works best when it is contingent upon completing a desired task.
10 Examples of the Premack Principle
- Incentivized Participation: A teacher rewards students who raise their hands with the chance to answer a question. In this example, raising one’s hand is less likely than answering the question, and the reward encourages the students to participate more actively in class.
- Homework Reinforcement: A parent gives their child access to video games after they finish doing their homework, making finishing homework for access to video games a reinforcing strategy for being productive and completing tasks.
- Performance-based Rewards: An employer incentivizes employees with bonuses or extra vacation days for meeting deadlines and goals within specific time frames as an incentive and reinforcement towards productivity.
- Healthy Eating Incentive: A parent offers a child dessert after dinner if they have finished their vegetables, providing an incentive for healthy eating habits, which may be less desirable than having a sweet treat afterward.
- Attendance Motivation: A student receives extra credit in class when they attend lectures regularly, where attendance is not mandatory but reinforces learning by rewarding those who turn up.
- Chore Reinforcement: Suppose a child completes all of their chores around the house on time each week. In that case, they might be rewarded with extra screen time or a day off from certain duties as an incentive and reinforcement towards being responsible and attentive to household tasks (see more: classroom incentives examples).
- Evaluation Incentives: A company uses employee evaluations where employees are awarded bonuses or additional benefits if they perform well during their evaluations as an incentive for personal development and improved performance at work.
- Skills Expansion Reward: An employer provides their employees with additional vacation days if they take on additional projects or roles to encourage them to expand their workplace skills while balancing responsibilities between leisurely activities such as vacations and work-related tasks.
- Academic Motivation: Learning institutions offer students rewards for studying hard, such as special giveaways or discounts on tuition fees. Here, proof of good grades is provided as motivation towards academic excellence and knowledge-seeking behavior habits that persist beyond formal education systems, i.e., into the workforce environment.
- Obedience Reinforcement: Pet owner rewards their animal companion with treats when it follows their commands correctly, such as sitting on command or fetching. Such reinforce proper obedience towards its owners may be less desirable than receiving treats but still important overall for successful pet-owner relationships.
Origins of the Premack Principle
The Premack principle is a psychological concept developed by David Premack in 1965 that states that more probable behaviors can reinforce less probable behaviors.
At its core, the premise of the Premack principle relies on the idea of incentives and rewards to positively reinforce desirable behaviors while punishing undesirable behavior for promoting change.
David Premack postulated this concept in 1965 after observing chimpanzees at a zoo (Sanz & Funkhouser, 2017).
He found that if an activity was more likely to occur or was preferred (like playing), it could be used as a reward for another activity (such as cleaning up) with a lower likelihood or preference.
By rewarding with something more preferred, those activities were strengthened and were more likely to reoccur in future instances (Sanz & Funkhouser, 2017).
Consequently, researchers have continued to study ways to use this principle across different disciplines, such as improving health-related behaviors or marketing campaigns with rewards-based offerings.
Applications of the Premack Principle
The Premack Principle has been successfully used across various application areas, from childhood development to marketing (Herrod et al., 2022).
Here are some examples:
- Early Childhood Development – Parents and teachers use rewards to reinforce desired behaviors in children, such as better social skills or academic successes. This creates motivation for future performance, encouraging children to make the most of their potential.
- Organizational Settings – Employers can utilize the Premack principle to motivate employees with incentives and reinforcement strategies for specific outcomes such as greater authority or flexible working hours. This can be done through reward systems for projects completed well or easier access to resources for those who meet deadlines before the due date.
- Sports Training – Coaches and trainers often rely on reward systems to encourage athletes further by incentivizing them with equipment, recognition, or privileges to promote excellence in their field of sport. This also encourages team spirit and healthy competition among players while they strive towards their individual goals.
- Education – Schools have implemented various reward systems to create a positive learning environment where students will feel supported if they participate actively and put effort into achieving their goals. This could include extra credit points, certificates of achievement, and other forms of acknowledgment which reward students for their efforts in class or outside activities like sports or arts clubs at school.
- Health & Fitness – Rewards-based programs are becoming increasingly popular as individuals strive to lead healthier lifestyles through fitness-tracking apps. They can offer points throughout an exercise routine that can later be redeemed for discounts on products or services related to health and wellbeing. Many gyms have also used similar programs to encourage memberships with rewards like discounts on membership fees, additional gym time, equipment rental, etc.
- Marketing & Advertising – Companies also use rewards-based marketing campaigns that offer discounts or special incentives when customers purchase certain products or subscribe to services. This helps brands create positive associations between their products/services and consumers while creating loyalty in the process too!
Critique of the Premack Principle
The Premack Principle has been widely accepted as an effective reinforcement theory, but some critiques – from limited ability to predict human behavior to potential for side effects – should be considered.
Here are some critiques of the Premack Principle:
1. Limited Ability to Predict Human Behaviour
Since the Premack principle is based on operant conditioning, which works on a trial-and-error basis, it cannot accurately predict how individuals will respond in real-world situations (Croll, 1974).
This makes it difficult to use this principle to effectively motivate people with rewards or punishments outside of a laboratory setting.
2. Lack of Control Over Reinforcements
In some cases, the effectiveness of the Premack principle relies heavily on the types of reinforcers chosen by the experimenter.
Depending on their desired outcome, they may choose reinforcements that reward only certain behavior patterns while ignoring others (Croll, 1974).
This has led critics to argue that this makes it easier for experimenters to manipulate results in favor of their hypotheses without meaningfully controlling behaviors.
3. Reliance on Extrinsic Rewards
Critics have also argued that relying too heavily on extrinsic rewards such as money can lead to an over-reliance on external motivators.
Thus, it undermines intrinsic motivation, which is essential for long-term success and satisfaction within any given field or activity.
4. Potential for Unwanted Side Effects
If used incorrectly, rewards may lead to unintended consequences such as creating entitlement attitudes which could result in decreased motivation once those rewards are no longer present or when expectations become too high (Croll, 1974).
This could also lead to frustration and disengagement from those activities due to a sense of pressure associated with them now.
Premack Principle vs Response Deprivation Theory
Response deprivation theory is an alternative to the Premack principle and has been proposed to explain how organisms can maintain or increase their level of responding even in the absence of reinforcement (Klatt & Morris, 2001).
The main idea behind this theory is that if a particular behavior is consistently not reinforced, the probability of that behavior occurring will gradually decline (Redmon et al., 2013).
This decline happens due to what is known as ‘response deprivation.’ When a behavior doesn’t cause any reinforcers to be delivered, it no longer has any reinforcing value. Therefore the organism will stop responding to it.
The main premise of response deprivation theory is that when reinforcements are withheld for a prolonged period, organisms may instead start responding to stimuli that would normally go unreinforced (Klatt & Morris, 2001).
For example, if someone was used to being rewarded for completing a certain task but suddenly had those rewards taken away, they might eventually start doing something else to regain those rewards.
This could be anything from reading a book or watching TV to gain some sense of gratification.
So, response deprivation theory can be used as an effective tool for changing animal and human behavior.
Premack principle is an effective reinforcement theory widely accepted and used to motivate individuals based on their behavior.
It means that rewarding desired behavior and punishing undesired demeanor will increase the chances of those behaviors occurring in the future.
Developed in the 1970s, this theory has been used in various fields, such as education, health & fitness, and marketing & advertising.
Premack principle helps individuals obtain desired outcomes; however, it has to be used carefully and wisely as over-reliance on extrinsic rewards may not always lead to the desired behavior and may instead lead to unintended consequences.
Ultimately, this theory is useful for understanding how conduct can be shaped and motivated by rewards and punishments.
Croll, W. L. (1974). Some limitations on the Premack principle. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 3(5), 375–376. https://doi.org/10.3758/bf03333503
Herrod, J. L., Snyder, S. K., Hart, J. B., Frantz, S. J., & Ayres, K. M. (2022). Applications of the Premack principle: A review of the literature. Behavior Modification, 47(1), 219–246. https://doi.org/10.1177/01454455221085249
Klatt, K. P., & Morris, E. K. (2001). The Premack principle, response deprivation, and establishing operations. The Behavior Analyst, 24(2), 173–180. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf03392028
Redmon, W. K., Mawhinney, T. C., & Johnson, C. M. (2013). Handbook of organizational performance. London: Routledge.
Sanz, C. M., & Funkhouser, J. A. (2017). David Premack. Springer EBooks, 1–3. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-47829-6_1054-1
Sdao, K. (2012). Plenty in life is free. New York: Dogwise Publishing.