Behavioral psychologists view behavior as a result of learning. One of the three behavioral models of learning is operant conditioning, which describes primary and secondary reinforcement, as well as punishment, as the cause of behavior. Operant conditioning was first described by Edward Thorndike and later developed by B.F. Skinner. American behavioral psychology was the dominant paradigm of psychology from the early 1900s through the 1960s.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning uses reinforcement or punishment to increase or decrease a behavior. A behavior that is followed by a reinforcement will increase, whereas, a behavior that is followed by a punishment will decrease. This is known as the law of effect. An example of reinforcement is giving a child a piece of candy only after the child says "please." The candy reinforces, and thus increases, the chances of the child saying "please."

An example of punishment is rinsing a child's mouth out with soap after saying an undesirable word. The disgusting taste of soap decreases the behavior of saying the unacceptable word.

Primary Reinforcement

Spanking is an example of pain as a primary punishment.
Spanking is an example of pain as a primary punishment.

A primary reinforcer is any reinforcer that does not need to be learned. Reinforcers such as money or an award are known as secondary reinforcers. A primary reinforcer is biologically rooted, such as hunger, sleep, oxygen or sex. A secondary reinforcer is learned, such as money that can be used to exchange for a primary reinforcer.

Examples of Primary Reinforcers

Examples of primary reinforcers include food, water, sleep, oxygen and sex. Behavior that is followed by the satisfaction of these basic drives will increase. Using a biscuit to reward a dog for rolling over is an example of a primary reinforcer. A student receiving an A on a test for performing well is a secondary reinforcer because the symbol A cannot satisfy a biological drive.

Primary Reinforcers and Learning

According to Thorndike and Skinner, depriving an animal of a primary reinforcer, such as food, until a behavior is performed will significantly increase that behavior. A child who receives a toy or sweet after a tantrum is thrown will increase their acrimonious behavior.