Types of Reinforcers

Reinforcement is a fundamental concept of Operant conditioning, whose main purpose is to strengthen or increase the rate of behavior. Reinforcement helps increase certain behavior with the use of stimulus, which is called reinforcer.


There are no limitations to what a reinforcer can be. A reinforcer can be food when an organism has been deprived of food, water when it has been deprived of liquid, the opportunity to mate, money, praise, and so on.

Reinforcers can be classified into two different types positive and negative to begin with.

Whether primary and conditioned or immediate and delayed reinforcers, they can all be classified into being positive or negative.

Positive and Negative Reinforcers

Positive reinforcement increases the probability that an operant will occur when reinforcers (positive) are applied. To put it in simpler terms, certain consequences of action results with the increase in probability that the action will repeat again in future. These consequences are called positive reinforcers.

Negative reinforcement increases the probability that an operant will occur when reinforcers (negative) are applied. Simply put, negative reinforcers are the stimuli that strengthen responses permitting an organism to avoid or escape from their presence. The stimulus or reinforcer (negative reinforcers) causes the frequency of operant to increase, as it terminates or removes the undesired responses.

Primary and Conditioned Reinforcers

The reinforcers which are biologically important are called primary reinforcers. It is also referred as unconditional reinforcement. These reinforcers occur naturally without having to make any effort and do not require any form of learning. For example: food, sleep, water, air and sex.

Secondary reinforcers refer to stimuli which become rewarding when paired with other reinforcing stimulus. These reinforcers aren’t important for survival like the primary reinforcers, but are still vital for daily living. These reinforcers are also known as Conditioned Reinforcers. For example: money, grades and praise are conditioned reinforcers.

Immediate and Delayed Reinforcers

If any reinforcer is presented immediately, such reinforcers are called Immediate reinforcers. For example, a student is given a treat immediately for completing his homework. Because the response is immediate, he is more likely to repeat the behavior again.

If any reinforcer is presented after a delayed interval, such reinforcers are called Delayed reinforcers. From the previous example, the student is only given a treat after a certain while, which might not be as effective as immediate reinforcers.