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Classifying Reinforcers

Unconditioned Reinforcer is also called a primary reinforcer.  These are reinforcers that do not need to be learned, such as food, water, oxygen, warmth and sex.  These are all primary drives that we have for basic survival and if they are deprived in any way, gaining access to these reinforcers is very motivating.

Conditioned Reinforcer is also called a secondary reinforcer.  It is something that needs to be learned through pairings with unconditioned reinforcers.  For example, money is a learned reinforcer.  By itself, money is a useless piece of paper, but with the pairing of money and access to unconditioned reinforcers, money becomes a valuable thing.

Generalized Conditioned Reinforcer

Reinforcers can be classified by their attributes:

  • Edible Reinforcer – Highly preferred food items.  If you don’t like it, it wouldn’t serve as a reinforcer.  It has to be yummy.
  • Sensory Reinforcer – Anything that effects pleasure to the senses to the individual.  Again, it has to be something that the person likes, otherwise, it is not going to be a reinforcer.  This can include massage, music, or a beautiful painting.
  • Tangible Reinforcer – Any tangible item that the person values.  This can be money, stickers or tokens.
  • Activity Reinforcer – The opportunity to have some fun.  This is anything the person enjoys doing: going fishing, watching TV, jumping on a trampoline.
  • Social Reinforcer – Any positive or desired attention or interaction with another person can serve to reinforce.

These reinforcer types remind me of the “5 Love Languages.”  The premise behind the Love Language book is that people find different things reinforcing and they want to receive positives from others in different ways.  The Love Languages are like Reinforcers in that everyone has different things that they find desirable and therefore reinforcing.

In order to find what is reinforcing to an individual, a preference assessment can be performed.

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