In psychology, a primary reinforcer is anything that humans innately desire. As a result, humans are motivated to do tasks that will lead to the acquisition of a primary reinforcer.
A primary reinforcer is usually a basic need related to the satisfaction of a biologically driven desire. For example, water, food, sleep, and shelter are all primary reinforcers.
Primary Reinforcer Definition
In operant conditioning, a reinforcer is a positive reward that is provided to someone for carrying out a desired behavior or task.
Often, teachers will give a reward like an award, social status, or extra playtime. In the workplace, our key reward is a paycheque at the end of the week.
But, unlike awards or money, primary reinforcers are special because they do not require any history of conditioning to become rewarding. Primary reinforcers like water and food are inherently rewarding.
Here are some quote definitions from psychology textbooks:
- “A primary reinforcer is one that has as its basis the survival of the organism” (Leonard, 2022)
- “A primary reinforcer is any unlearned, innate stimulus (like food, water, or sex) that reinforces a response and thus increases the probability that it will recur.” (Huffman, Dowdell & Sanderson, 2017)
Primary reinforcers strengthen a behavior by rewarding it. When an action is followed by a primary reinforcer, such as food, the likelihood of that behavior happening again is increased.
The concept of reinforcing behavior has wide-ranging applications from classroom management to marketing and advertising.
Primary Reinforcer Examples
- The smell of fresh bread: Walking by a bakery makes us feel good because the aroma of baked bread has been associated with the primary reinforcer food.
- Serotonin: A person really looks forward to seeing their romantic partner after a long day of work because a warm embrace is naturally rewarding.
- Food when hungry: Having a big meal after a strong workout is especially satisfying.
- Dog treats: A dog owner gives their dog a treat every time they sit on command to reinforce their behavior.
- Fresh food from the garden: Gardening is not only relaxing, but there is nothing better than the taste of freshly picked berries.
- Fresh, clean air (abundant oxygen): One reason taking a hike through the mountains is so pleasant is because the air is fresh and cool.
- Sleep: The idea that you will be able to sleep as soon as you finish your homework is a primary reinforcer because all humans have an innate desire to sleep when tired.
- Getting home (shelter): If you are out for a walk and it starts raining, you may rush home because your home provides a primary reinforcer – shelter.
- A drink at the end of a lap during a run: I recall when I was at school doing cross-country running, there was a water station at the end of each lap. Toward the end of the lap, getting to the water station was motivating because it would lead to water, a basic need.
- Bathroom breaks: All humans have the natural urge to go to the bathroom. Getting to your destination might be reinforced by the fact you’ll be able to relieve yourself when you arrive.
Case Studies and Uses in Marketing
1. Use of Primary Reinforcers on Product Packaging
Some visual images are innately pleasing. Flowers, sunsets, and even certain color schemes will automatically activate a pleasant feeling in the viewer.
A skilled packaging designer will incorporate images associated with visual primary reinforcers into their design. Although those images are innately pleasing, they may have absolutely nothing to do with the actual function of the product.
The objective is for those images to serve as primary reinforcers that become associated with a product or brand.
For this reason, corporations will spend a great deal of time and resources on product packaging. Not only are the designers highly skilled at graphic design, but they also have an instinctual understanding of how to use visual primary reinforcers.
2. Physical Features and Reproduction
From an evolutionary perspective, certain physical features have been linked to reproductive success for thousands of years (Barber, 1995; Buss, 2019). Modern research on the science of attraction has revealed the complexity of mate selection.
For instance, in males, jaw-bone width and a V-shaped torso are rated as physically attractive (Barber, 1995; Buss, 2019).
As Little et al. (2011) elaborate:
“Many studies have reported that women demonstrate stronger preferences for men displaying masculine facial characteristics around ovulation, when women are most fertile, than during other phases of the menstrual cycle” (p. 1645).
In females, features such as wide eyes, high cheek bones, and a certain hip-to-waist ratio range are considered attractive. These features are linked to estrogen.
Key features in both males and females have become primary reinforcers due to their link to biological reproduction, a necessary sequence of behaviors to ensure survival of the species.
3. Appealing to the Maternal Instinct
The usual list of primary reinforcers includes food, water, sleep, and reproductive behaviors. These are all innately pleasurable. And they all satisfy a deep-rooted biological need. But you don’t often see maternal instinct on the list. Nevertheless, one could argue that the fulfilling the maternal instinct is at least as strong of a primary reinforcer as fulfilling the biological need for food and water.
We can see an example in advertising of how a company tries to connect their product with satisfying a maternal instinct to protect one’s baby.
The Michelin tire company ran a series of commercials for decades that described various dangerous driving scenarios. The tried to instill a sense of confidence in their tires’ ability to keep the family, and baby, safe by using a clever slogan at the end:
“Michelin, because so much is riding on your tires.”
4. Flower Powers
The most commonly listed primary reinforcers are food, sleep, and reproductive activities. The human body has a biological reaction to each one of these that doesn’t have to be learned.
But most people would not think of flowers. However, the scent of most flowers is biologically pleasing.
The chemicals compounds released from the flower travel through the nasal cavity and impact olfactory sensory neurons. From there, various electrochemical reactions traverse to the pleasure centers in the cortex.
That constitutes the biological basis of the pleasurable feeling we have when smelling flowers.
A similar process is activated when we encounter pungent odors, which is aversive and makes us less likely to ingest dangerous food.
Our sense of smell is a fascinating subject. It can help us avoid dangerous food, which could be detrimental to the survival of the species, or, it could help us find a romantic partner, which could help propagate the species.
Primary Reinforcers in Animal Training
Primary reinforcers are used extensively in training animals. Typically, a food reward is used because most animals have a strong biological need to eat that seems never to satiate.
Training complex acts takes time and is a step-by-step process that involves a technique called shaping.
Shaping involves rewarding closer and closer approximations to the idealized ‘replacement behavior‘ (the behavior we’re seeking) and potentially punishing the ‘target behavior‘ (the behavior your attempting to phase out).
What that means is that instead of waiting for a dog to lay down and roll over to reward them, we start by rewarding behavior that is on the right path.
So, we might reward the dog for laying down. After they have mastered that part, we would then reward them for lying to one side.
Eventually, the dog will learn to lay down and roll all the way over.
Primary reinforcers are innately pleasurable. When they occur subsequent to a behavior, they reinforce that behavior and make it more likely to occur again. This is a basic principle of both operant and classical conditioning.
Primary reinforcers are used in the classroom by teachers to reward students for good behavior and doing well academically. Ad agencies tap into maternal instincts to instill confidence in the safety of a product.
Clever graphic designers use primary reinforcers to get potential customers to associate positive feelings with a product or brand. While other uses of primary reinforcers occur in the shaping of animal behavior to teach dogs clever tricks.
From an evolutionary perspective, certain physical features of men and women activate primary reinforcers connected to reproduction and perpetuation of the species.
Whether blatant or subtle, primary reinforcers play a role in nearly every aspect of our lives.
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Buss, D. M. (2019). Evolutionary psychology: The new science of the mind. Routledge.
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