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In their book,
Cooper, Heward, & Heron (2007) provide a detailed account on reinforcement,
a basic principle of behavior analysis that is all too frequently
misunderstood. Reinforcement occurs when the presentation or removal of a
stimulus contingent on a response leads to an increase of that response in the
future. A stimulus that strengthens the probability that a behavior will occur
in the future is a reinforcer. This ability to increase future responding is a
reinforcer’s defining characteristic. However, researchers and practitioners frequently
use technical classifications to further describe how reinforcers are relevant
to behavior change. For instance, reinforcers can either be programed in an
individual through the evolution of their species or acquired throughout their
learning history, thus they can be classified according to their origins. Three
reinforcers are determined according to their origins: primary, secondary, and
generalized reinforcers.

Primary
(unconditioned or unlearned) reinforcers are genetically inherited and function
as such without learning having to take place (Cooper et al., 2007). All
members of a species share the same unconditioned reinforcers. Although, their reinforcing
abilities depend on the motivating operations that alter their current value. Food,
warmth, and sex are examples of primary reinforcers pertaining to the human
species. When an individual is cold and deprived of warmth, warmth is
established as an effective reinforcer.

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Unlike primary reinforcers, secondary
reinforcers are learned. Secondary (conditioned or learned) reinforcers are
neutral stimuli that gain their ability to function as reinforcers through paired
presentations with one or more conditioned or unconditioned reinforcer (Cooper
et al., 2007). As a result, a neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned reinforcer
by adopting the reinforcing potential of the stimulus that it was paired with,
which also makes their value dependent on motivating operations. For example,
because sweaters are paired with the aided production of heat, a sweater is
established as an effective secondary reinforcer when an individual is deprived
of warmth.

Generalized reinforcers are
conditioned reinforces that undergo a different pairing procedure. While
conditioned reinforcers are paired with one or more reinforcer(s), generalized
reinforcers undergo multiple paired presentations with various conditioned and
unconditioned reinforcers (Cooper et al., 2007). Due to their rich pairing
history with various kinds of stimuli, generalized reinforcers serve as
effective reinforcers across many reinforcer establishing conditions. For this
reason, they have the unique ability to remain effective as reinforcers
regardless of the motivating operations taking place. Money is a common generalized
reinforcer due to its pairing history with various kinds of reinforcers, such
as food, clothing, and attention.

Categorizing
reinforcers according to their origins is one of the many ways in which
reinforcers may be classified. Describing primary, secondary, and generalized
reinforcers according to a their originating sources allowed their general
effects relevant to motivational operations to be identified.  effects as reinforcers were beyond their abilities
to increase future responding.

 

 

 

 

 

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