What Is the Premack Principle? Definition and Examples

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The Premack principle is a theory of reinforcement that states that a less desired behavior can be reinforced by the opportunity to engage in a more desired behavior. The theory is named after its originator, psychologist David Premack.

Key Takeaways: The Premack Principle

  • The Premack principle states that a higher probability behavior will reinforce a less probable behavior.
  • Created by psychologist David Premack, the principle has become a hallmark of applied behavior analysis and behavior modification.
  • The Premack principle has received empirical support and is frequently applied in child rearing and dog training. It is also known as relativity theory of reinforcement or grandma's rule.

Origins of the Premack Principle

Before the Premack principle was introduced, operant conditioning held that reinforcement was contingent upon the association of a single behavior and a single consequence. For example, if a student does well on a test, the studying behavior that resulted in his success will be reinforced if the teacher compliments him. In 1965, psychologist David Premack expanded on this idea to show that one behavior could reinforce another.

Premack was studying Cebus monkeys when he observed that behaviors that an individual naturally engages in at a higher frequency are more rewarding than those the individual engages in at a lower frequency. He suggested that the more rewarding, higher-frequency behaviors could reinforce the less rewarding, low-frequency behaviors.

Supporting Research

Since Premack first shared his ideas, multiple studies with both people and animals have supported the principle that bears his name. One of the earliest studies was conducted by Premack himself. Premack first determined if his young child participants preferred playing pinball or eating candy. He then tested them in two scenarios: one in which the children had to play pinball in order to eat candy and the other in which they had to eat candy in order to play pinball. Premack found that in each scenario, only the children who preferred the second behavior in the sequence showed a reinforcement effect, evidence for the Premack principle.

In a later study by Allen and Iwata demonstrated that exercising amongst a group of people with developmental disabilities increased when playing games (a high-frequency behavior) was made contingent on exercising (a low-frequency behavior).

In another study, Welsh, Bernstein, and Luthans found that when fast food workers were promised more time working at their favorite stations if their performance met specific standards, the quality of their performance at other workstations improved. 

Brenda Geiger found that providing seventh and eighth grade students with time to play on the playground could reinforce learning by making play contingent on the completion of their work in the classroom. In addition to increasing learning, this simple reinforcer increased students’ self-discipline and the time they spent on each task, and reduced the need for teachers to discipline students

Examples

The Premack principle can successfully be applied in many settings and has become a hallmark of applied behavior analysis and behavior modification. Two areas in which the application of the Premack principle has proven especially useful is child rearing and dog training. For example, when teaching a dog how to play fetch, the dog must learn that if he wants to chase the ball again (highly desired behavior), he must bring the ball back to his owner and drop it (less desired behavior).

The Premack principle is used all the time with children. Many parents have told children they must eat their vegetables before they can have dessert or they have to finish their homework before they’re allowed to play a video game. This tendency of caregivers to use the principle is why it is sometimes called “grandma’s rule.” While it can be very effective with children of all ages, it’s important to note that not all children are equally motivated by the same rewards. Therefore, in order to successfully apply the Premack principle, caregivers must determine the behaviors that are most highly motivating to the child.

Limitations of the Premack's Principle

There are several limitations to the Premack principle. First, one’s response to an application of the principle is dependent on context. The other activities available to the individual at a given moment and the individual’s preferences will play a role in whether the chosen reinforcer will produce the less-probable behavior.

Second, a high-frequency behavior will often occur at a lower rate when it’s contingent on a low-frequency behavior than when it’s not contingent on anything. This could be the result of there being too great a difference between the probability of performing the high and low frequency behaviors. For example, if one hour of study time only earns one hour of video game play and studying is an extremely low-frequency behavior while video game playing is an extremely high-frequency behavior, the individual may decide against studying to earn video game time because the large amount of study time is too onerous.

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