Conditioned Reinforcer (Definition + Examples)

How do you stick to a habit? How can you get your child to clean their room? How can you encourage your dog to “sit” on command? There is more than one answer to all of these questions, but you can successfully do all of these tasks with reinforcement. More specifically, conditioned reinforcement. Conditioned reinforcement is a tool that you have probably experienced in your life and maybe even used on a pet or child to encourage them to perform certain behaviors. This video will define conditioned reinforcement, dive deep into what these look like, and show how they can be used to teach certain behaviors in a practical, intuitive way. 

What Is a Conditioned Reinforcement? 

Reinforcements and punishments are both used in the process of operant conditioning. Through operant conditioning, subjects (children, students, employees, etc.) learn to consciously behave so that they can receive reinforcement and avoid punishment. Reinforcers, like praise or treats, encourage certain behavior. 

Punishments, like spanking or the removal of a child’s iPad, discourage certain behavior from happening. If a dog receives a shock every time they cross a barrier in their yard, they are unlikely to cross that barrier and learn to stay in the yard. 

Primary Reinforcement (Definition and Examples)

Some reinforcements are simple and directly contribute to our survival, like food. These reinforcers are known as primary reinforcement. A child doesn’t need any sort of conditioning to know that they want to behave in a way that results in ice cream. Air, shelter, water - all of these are primary reinforcement and can easily be used to encourage the behavior. 

Conditioned Reinforcement 

Of course, you can probably think of a few times when you learned to do a behavior through reinforcements like stickers on a chore chart or a thumbs up from your parents. Not all reinforcement has to be something that humans innately want. In order to make sure these stimuli work to reinforce behavior, the subject has to be conditioned to see it as reinforcement. Although this sounds like an extra step in the process, conditioned reinforcement is all around us, ready to be used by parents, employers, or pet owners in conditioning. 

A Note About Reinforcement 

It’s important to know that reinforcement encourages behavior, but it doesn’t always encourage wanted behavior. If used incorrectly or without proper thought, reinforcement can encourage unwanted behaviors that stick just as strongly as wanted behaviors. 

Say, for example, that you ground your child after they behaved poorly. The child, who still has access to their iPad and toys in their room, doesn’t mind being grounded. In fact, they are happy to be grounded. The child will not learn to behave and may even learn to misbehave so they can get time alone in their room. The same happens when children act out for attention. A child may find that when they act out, their parent pays more attention to them, babies them, or buys them their favorite food for them to feel better. The child begins to act out more frequently so they can receive that reinforcement. 

This is why parents, teachers, and pet owners should understand conditioning, reinforcement, and other terms in behavioral psychology. If you do not see the effects that certain stimuli are having, you may be teaching the wrong behaviors. 

Examples of Conditioned Reinforcers 

There are a lot of things that do not directly contribute to a person’s survival or the way that they feel. In theory, anything can become a conditioned reinforcer. Psychologist Ivan Pavlov noticed during his experiments with dogs that the sight of a researcher’s lab coats was enough to cause the dogs to perform the wanted response (drooling.) If a simple lab coat can be conditioned to be a reinforcer, it’s possible that any stimulus can become one. 

But we don’t need to have a big imagination to think of conditioned reinforcers. Teachers, parents, and even employers use conditioned reinforcers to encourage certain behaviors and responses, even if they don’t identify these stimuli as conditioned reinforcers. 

Paychecks 

One of the best examples of a conditioned reinforcer is a good old paycheck. The slip of paper or email about your direct deposit notification isn’t going to feed you on its own, but it will elicit that great feeling of relief or joy that comes with money in the bank. We are so motivated to get that biweekly or monthly paycheck that we spent eight hours a day heading into work! 

Toys or Stickers 

A sticker on a chore chart is only motivating if a child assigns meaning to this reinforcer. Otherwise, the child may not learn to do their chores. These small “prizes” can be a great reinforcer if they are handed out consistently after the wanted behavior or response. 

Praise and Positive Communication

A child may act to seek out a high-five, praise, or other forms of positive communication. These reinforcers may feel small to an adult, but if they are paired with that great feeling that one feels from being noticed, loved, or appreciated, they may continue to seek out this feeling and the actions associated with it.  

“Shine”

We can even use conditioned reinforcements on ourselves. In BJ Fogg’s book Tiny Habits, he recommends using “shine” immediately after completing your tiny habit. “Shine” refers to a celebration, dance, or any small movement that you know makes you feel good. Again, this isn’t going to feed you or nourish you, but you will feel good. The best part about using “shine” to reinforce your tiny habit is that you already know the stimuli that you have been conditioned to see as a reinforcement. For some people, “shine” sounds like a big cheer or motivating mantra. For others, this is a happy dance around the room. Either way, once you have identified it, you can use it to condition yourself to stick to your new habit. 

Why Is It Important to Use Conditioned Reinforcement in Learning? 

Why is it important to know about conditioned reinforcers? Because we can’t always teach children, pets, or even colleagues on primary reinforcers alone. Children are not rats in a cage who will be motivated by small pellets of food. Not every response that we want to encourage in ourselves and others will directly contribute to survival, and it’s not practical to use a stimulus that will directly contribute to survival. We have naturally found other reinforcers that motivate people, even if we had to tie that reinforcer to something that does contribute to our survival or feels good. 

Consider the Reinforcement 

It is important to note here that not all reinforcers will work the same for every person. One child may not initially be motivated by a sticker or a “good job!” Different paycheck amounts may not be enough of a reward to come into work on time every day. Conditioned reinforcement may also work for one subject in one environment, but may be completely ineffective for a different subject or in a different environment. A high-five from a parent might be a great reinforcer for a child, but that same high-five from a stranger isn’t so effective. 

This leaves the person doing the reinforcing with two options: either tie the conditioned reinforcer to a primary reinforcer or choose a different conditioned reinforcer to use in operant conditioning. Both of these processes can be successful depending on the subject who is being conditioned and what resources and abilities the person doing the conditioning have available to them.

How to reference this article:

Theodore. (2021, May). Conditioned Reinforcer (Definition + Examples). Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/conditioned-reinforcer/.

About the author 

Theodore

Theodore created PracticalPsychology while in college and has transformed the educational online space of psychology. His goal is to help people improve their lives by understanding how their brains work. 1,700,000 Youtube subscribers and a growing team of psychologists, the dream continues strong!

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