Premack’s principle: what it is and what role it plays in behaviorism

The Premack principle arises in the context of operant conditioning and supports the existence of a determining psychological dimension in the repetition or extinction of a behavior. This dimension is the value that the individual attaches to a particular event, which is generated by his interactions with that event.

This principle was one of the great postulates of operant conditioning in the mid-twentieth century, as it broke with the traditional definition of “reinforcer,” which had important implications for pattern learning and motivation studies.

    The Premack principle: definition and origins

    Between 1954 and 1959, the American psychologist David Premack, and his wife and collaborator Ann James Premack, conducted various studies on operant conditioning. by analyzing the behavior of monkeys belonging to the genus Cebus.

    Initially, this research was conducted at the Yerkes Primate Biology Laboratory, located in the state of Florida. Later at the University of Missouri, State of Colombia; later at the University of California and finally at the University of Pennsylvania.

    Premack’s hypothesis was that any response A will strengthen any response B, if and only if the probability of occurrence of response A is greater than that of response B. That is, they wanted to prove that an infrequent behavioral response can be reinforced by another response, as long as the latter implies a greater preference over the former.

    In other words, the Premack Principle holds that if there is a behavior or activity that arouses little interest, most likely, this behavior will not occur spontaneously. However, if immediately after its execution the opportunity arises to perform another behavior or activity that arouses interest, then the first (the one that does not interest him) will greatly increase its possibility of repetition.

      Contributions to operational conditioning

      In Skinner’s operant conditioning, reinforcers are stimuli that have the intrinsic property of increasing the incidence of a behavior. So the very definition of “reinforcer” was given by its effects on behavior, so it was any stimulus that had the capacity to increase behavior as long as it worked. that did that the reinforcement itself was at the center of the efforts to increase any behavior.

      But by testing Primack’s hypothesis, Skinner’s operant conditioning theory takes an important turn: far from functioning absolutely, reinforcers function relatively.

      In other words, the reinforcer is not important in itself, what matters is the many possibilities of response that it offers to the individual. In this way, what determines the effect of an event is the value that the subject attaches to his own event. For this theory, the central responses are the responses, so what increases the appearance of a behavior is not so much a “reinforcer” as a series of “reinforcing events”.

      The theory of response deprivation

      Subsequently, other experiments and research carried out in the context of operant conditioning questioned the functioning of the Premack principle.

      Among them is the theory of response deprivation. Generally speaking, this suggests that there are situations in which restricting access to the reinforcing response, far from increasing the preference for the instrumental response, is increase the motivation of the former, And at the same time the series of behaviors associated with it. Simply put, this suggests that the less you can access a behavior, the more motivation it generates.

      Value according to this theory

      According to Pereira, Caycedo, Gutiérrez and Sandoval (1994), because of the importance that the Premack principle attaches to the motivation generated by reinforcement events, one of the central concepts of the Premack principle is ‘value’, the definition can be summarized and defined as follows:

      organizations they order the events of the world according to a hierarchy of values.

      Value is measured by the probability that an organism will respond to a stimulus. In turn, the probability can be measured by the duration of the interaction with this response. In other words, the more time spent doing an activity, the more valuable the activity is for the individual.

      If a more valued event is presented immediately afterwards to another less valued one, the latter’s behavior is reinforced. Likewise, the least valued event and the behaviors involved in it acquire an “instrumental” value.

      If the opposite effect occurs (a lower value event occurs immediately after a large value), what happens is the punishment for instrumental behaviorIn other words, it decreases the likelihood that the least valued behavior will repeat itself.

      Likewise, “value” is defined as a psychological dimension that individuals attribute to events, just as other properties (size, color, weight, for example) are attributed to it. In the same sense, the value is assigned based on the particular interaction that an individual establishes with the event.

      It is this psychological dimension that determines the probability of the appearance or disappearance of a behavior, that is to say the effect of reinforcement or punishment. Because of that, to ensure that a behavior passes or endsIt is essential to analyze the value that the individual attributes to it.

      The above is to analyze both the present and previous interactions of the individual with the event he wishes to reinforce, as well as the opportunities to generate other responses or events.

      The pinball and candy experience

      To make all of the above a reality, we ended by describing an experiment that David Premack and his collaborators carried out with a group of children. In the first part, they were presented with two alternatives (called “answers”): to eat a candy or to play with a pinball machine.

      This helped determine which of these two behaviors is more likely to recur for each child (and with that, the level of preference was determined).

      In the second part of the experiment, the children learned that they could eat a candy as long as they played with the pinball machine first. So, “eat candy” was the reinforcing response, and “playing with the pinball machine” was the instrumental response. The result of the experiment is as follows: only children who have a greater preference for “eating candy” reinforce their less likely or less interesting behavior, that of “playing with the pinball machine”.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Premack Principle (2018). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved September 6, 2018.Available at
      • Klatt, K. and Morris, E. (2001). Premack’s Principle, Deprivation of Response and Establishment of Operations, 24 (2): 173-180.
      • Pereyra, C., Caycedo, C., Gutierrez, C. and Sandoval M. (1994). Premack theory and motivational analysis. Psychological sum, 1 (1): 26-37.
      • Premack, D. (1959). Towards empirical laws of behavior: I. Positive reinforcement. Psychological Review, 66 (4): 219-233.

      Leave a Comment