The Primary/Secondary Reinforcement Dichotomy

A couple of weeks ago I got an email about a statement I made about secondary reinforcers.

“Once the subject understands the training process it may be possible to introduce secondary or conditioned reinforcers such as attention, verbal praise, or access to toys.”

The writer questioned if I really thought that my examples were secondary reinforcers. This question lead me into some research because while I really did think they were secondary, otherwise I would not have written it, a good trainer should not blindly hold on to what they currently believe, but investigate and question those beliefs. This is one of the tenets of good science too. I try to keep in mind the following quotation:

“A belief is not merely an idea the mind possesses; it is an idea that possesses the mind.” – Robert Oxton Bolt.

Before digging into this subject I would like to thank Dr Susan Friedman for her help in clarifying my thoughts on the subject of reinforcers and also for sending me into some interesting thought loops as we discussed this subject over the past week or so.

In my discussions of this with Dr. Friedman she pointed out that primary/secondary is a man made concept and in nature it is unlikely that we find such a clear cut division. The division is used by behavioral scientists and trainers to convey the concept that many neutral stimuli can become reinforcers through close, repeated pairing with a primary reinforcer (secondary reinforcers).

From a behaviorists standpoint there are three groupings of reinforcers; those that are from the evolutionary history of the animal, the so called “hard-wired” reinforcers, those that are based upon the past history of the individual, and those operating in the immediate environment. Of these three the first one groups together the primary reinforcers. To quote Dr. Friedman, “… primary reinforcers are a very short list — when primary reinforcers are understood to mean automatic, without prior experience.” She also added “Our (behavior analysts) adage is, when in doubt call it a secondary.”

So are “attention, verbal praise, or access to toys” primary, i.e. “automatic, without prior experience”? Personally I don’t think they are and to again quote Dr. Friedman “… it is likely that for social species, affiliation behaviors in a broad sense is [sic] a primary reinforcer but the behaviors used to get that outcome are largely learned.”

This last point about affiliation is worth expanding a little. Affiliation describes the interaction of social species, e.g. the mutual preening of a bonded pair of birds. It is often cited as support for head-scratching of companion birds as a primary reinforcer. However, as Dr. Friedman also points out, there are no hands in the wild! A bird needs to learn that a hand approaching its head will deliver a potentially enjoyable scratch. So, if it needs to learn this by definition it is a secondary reinforcer. Similarly being in close proximity to a social group member or mate in the wild can not be used as justification for similar close contact with a human. Once again the bird needs to learn that a human may bring reinforcement, therefore it is secondary!

Plus, there is another point that excludes reinforcers such as attention from being primary and that is that it may not be reinforcing across all members of a species. True primary reinforcers are primary reinforcement across all individuals of a species.

This is a subject that has been endlessly discussed by behavioral scientists for almost as long as the science has been practiced. It is worth restating that the primary/secondary dichotomy is manmade and nature is rarely so clean in its distinctions. The best way to think of primaries is as a very short list with the distinct characteristic of being automatic and without prior experience, i.e. instinctual, not learned, and from the evolutionary history of the animal. Everything else is secondary.

Keep the questions coming by email  (TrainingBlogatAvianAmbassadorsdotcom)  .


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