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Examples of Conditioned Reinforcers

A conditioned reinforcer, also known as a secondary reinforcer, is a stimulus that becomes reinforcing after it is associated with primary reinforcers or other conditioned reinforcers. Unlike primary reinforcers, which are inherently rewarding (such as food, water, or shelter), conditioned reinforcers only acquire their reinforcing power through repeated pairing with primary reinforcers or other conditioned reinforcers. 

Examples of conditioned reinforcers include money, praise, tokens, or even social approval. Over time, these stimuli become linked with the satisfaction of basic needs or desires, eliciting similar responses of satisfaction or pleasure.

Conditioned Reinforcers and Operant Conditioning

In operant conditioning, conditioned reinforcers work by becoming associated with primary reinforcers in order to reinforce behavior. It works like this:

  • Pairing: Initially, a neutral stimulus (like a sound or a symbol) is paired with a primary reinforcer (like food or water). For example, a clicker sound is paired with giving a treat to a dog.
  • Association: Through repeated pairing, the neutral stimulus becomes associated with the primary reinforcer. The neutral stimulus now gains the power to reinforce behavior on its own, becoming a conditioned reinforcer. In our example, the clicker sound alone can now reinforce the dog’s behavior.
  • Reinforcement: Once the conditioned reinforcer is established, it can be used to reinforce desired behaviors. When the behavior occurs, the conditioned reinforcer is presented, strengthening the likelihood of the behavior happening again in the future.
  • Consistency: Consistent pairing and reinforcement are key to maintaining the effectiveness of conditioned reinforcers over time. If the association is not reinforced consistently, the power of the conditioned reinforcer may weaken.

Conditioned reinforcers in operant conditioning work by associating with primary reinforcers, eventually gaining the ability to reinforce behavior independently. This is important when it comes to learning and modifying behaviors in different situations. For example, conditioned reinforcers can be useful when training animals and shaping human behavior in educational and therapeutic settings.

Common Examples of Conditioned Reinforcers

To understand how this works, it can be helpful to explore a few examples of conditioned reinforcers.


Money serves as a powerful conditioned reinforcer. It gains its reinforcing properties because it is associated with acquiring goods and services. While money does not directly fulfill a primary need, it does allow us to access the things we need to fulfill various needs and desires.


Verbal approval or compliments can function as conditioned reinforcers, especially when they are consistently paired with desired behaviors. Praise serves as a social reinforcement, promoting positive behavior in social settings.

Tokens or Points

Tokens or points earned in reward systems, such as in classrooms or token economies, are conditioned reinforcers. They represent a unit of reinforcement that can be exchanged for desired items or privileges.


In educational settings, grades or marks can act as conditioned reinforcers. Students associate good grades with academic success and recognition, motivating them to engage in behaviors that are conducive to learning.

Badges or Certificates

Achievement badges, certificates, or trophies serve as examples of conditioned reinforcers. They symbolize accomplishment and recognition. They are often awarded for reaching specific goals or milestones.

Social Approval

Approval from peers or authority figures can function as a conditioned reinforcer. Such approval reinforces behaviors that align with social norms or expectations.

Access to Technology or Entertainment

For many individuals, access to technology devices, such as smartphones or tablets, or entertainment platforms, such as streaming services, can serve as conditioned reinforcers due to the pleasure and satisfaction they provide.

Affection or Attention

Affectionate gestures, such as hugs, kisses, or expressions of love, and receiving attention from others can function as conditioned reinforcers, strengthening social bonds and promoting positive interactions.

These examples of conditioned reinforcers show how various stimuli can acquire reinforcing properties through association with primary reinforcers or through social and environmental contexts.

Factors That Affect Conditioned Reinforcers

Several factors can influence the effectiveness of conditioned reinforcers and the strength of a response:

Consistency of Pairing

The consistency and reliability of pairing the conditioned reinforcer with the primary reinforcer or desired behavior play a crucial role. If the pairing is inconsistent, the conditioned reinforcer’s effectiveness may weaken over time.

Strength of Primary Reinforcer

The strength or desirability of the primary reinforcer involved in the pairing process can impact the potency of the conditioned reinforcer. Stronger primary reinforcers tend to produce more robust conditioned responses.

Timing of Reinforcement

The timing between the presentation of the conditioned reinforcer and the occurrence of the desired behavior is critical. Immediate reinforcement strengthens the association between the conditioned reinforcer and the behavior.

Individual Differences

Factors such as individual preferences, past experiences, and biological predispositions can influence how individuals respond to conditioned reinforcers. What may serve as a powerful conditioned reinforcer for one person or animal may not be as effective for another.

Satiation and Deprivation

Satiation (being fully satisfied) or deprivation (being in need) of the primary reinforcer can affect the effectiveness of the conditioned reinforcer. For example, if a person is already full, conditioned reinforcers that are associated with food may not be as effective.

Generalization and Discrimination

Generalization occurs when similar stimuli evoke the conditioned response, while discrimination involves distinguishing between different stimuli. The extent to which the conditioned response generalizes or discriminates can influence the strength of the response.

Contextual Factors

Environmental cues, such as the setting or social context in which the conditioned reinforcer is presented, can impact its effectiveness. A conditioned reinforcer may be more potent in certain environments or social situations than others.

By considering these factors, individuals can optimize the use of conditioned reinforcers to effectively shape behavior and promote desired outcomes in operant conditioning paradigms.

Why Conditioned Reinforcers Are Important

Understanding how examples of conditioned reinforcers work is crucial in various fields, such as psychology, education, and behavioral therapy. Educators and therapists can effectively shape behavior and motivate individuals by comprehending the mechanisms behind conditioned reinforcers. 

For instance, in educational settings, teachers can use praise or rewards to reinforce desired behaviors in students, promoting learning and positive classroom dynamics. 

Similarly, in therapeutic interventions, clinicians can utilize conditioned reinforcers to encourage clients to engage in beneficial activities or to replace maladaptive behaviors with healthier alternatives. Recognizing the power of conditioned reinforcers allows for more targeted and efficient strategies for behavior modification and skill acquisition. This can help enhance learning outcomes and promote positive behavior change.


Fantino, E., & Romanowich, P. (2007). The effect of conditioned reinforcement rate on choice: a review. Journal of the experimental analysis of behavior, 87(3), 409–421.

Shahan T. A. (2010). Conditioned reinforcement and response strength. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 93(2), 269–289.