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What Is the Premack Principle?

The Premack Principle is a psychological concept suggesting that high-probability behavior can help reinforce low-probability behavior. In simpler terms, it involves using an enjoyable activity that someone prefers to encourage them to engage in a less enjoyable activity. 

For example, a teacher might tell students that they have to finish their assignment first, and then they can have free time. Or you might tell yourself that you must eat your vegetables before having a treat. In both cases, using something pleasant that people prefer motivates them to accomplish something that they like much less.

The Premack Principle has important implications for motivation and behavior change. Using this idea can help people make changes in a variety of situations.

Origins of the Premack Principle

The Premack Principle is named after psychologist David Premack, who introduced the concept in the early 1960s. Premack’s experiments on animal behavior explored the idea that a high-probability behavior could be used to reinforce a low-probability behavior.

In one of his studies, Premack observed monkeys engaging in various activities, such as eating preferred foods or engaging in preferred behaviors. He found that these preferred activities could effectively reinforce less preferred behaviors. 

Premack’s work added a further understanding of how reinforcement and motivation work and interact. This idea had an essential effect on the field of psychology, but it also significantly influenced educational practices and behavior modification strategies. 

The Premack Principle has since become a widely recognized and applied concept in psychology, offering insights into how different activities can be strategically used to influence and modify behavior.

How the Premack Principle Works

The Premack Principle operates on the fundamental idea of using a high-probability behavior to reinforce a low-probability behavior. Its core concepts can be broken down into key components:

High-Probability Behavior

A high-probability behavior is an activity that a person is naturally inclined to engage in or finds more enjoyable and likely to occur. This is something that people like and would naturally engage in on their own without external incentives.

Low-Probability Behavior

A low-probability behavior is one that is less preferred or has a lower likelihood of occurrence compared to a high-probability behavior. This is an activity that people don’t typically enjoy and would probably not engage in on their own without some type of external incentive.


In the context of the Premack Principle, reinforcement occurs when the opportunity to engage in the high-probability behavior is used to motivate or strengthen the occurrence of the low-probability behavior.

Motivation and Behavior Modification

Because the high-probability activity is a motivator, people feel more motivated to engage in the low-probability activity. This can play an important part in getting people to modify their behavior.

Adaptable to Different Situations

The Premack Principle can be adapted to a wide variety of situations in various contexts. For example, it can be helpful in therapeutic settings, educational settings, and as a way to modify personal habits. It can also be personalized depending on the individual’s needs and interests.

High-probability behaviors can vary from one person to the next, so such activities often need to be adapted to better suit the person and the situation.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation also play an important role in the Premack Principle. Activities that people enjoy (which are intrinsically motivating) are used to reinforce less enjoyable tasks (which often hinge on extrinsic motivation).

For example, in a classroom setting, a teacher might allow students to participate in a preferred activity (which a high-probability, intrinsically motivating behaviors), like drawing or reading, as a reward for completing a less preferred task (which is a low-probability, extrinsically motivated behavior), such as finishing homework.

How to Use the Premack Principle

In educational settings, the Premack Principle can be a great way to help motivate students to learn.

Offer Rewards for Completing Tasks

One way teachers can utilize the Premack Principle is to allow students to engage in enjoyable tasks such as creative projects or free reading after they finish their less preferred tasks.

Encourage Classroom Participation

Teachers can also encourage students to participate in class by incorporating enjoyable activities as a reward. Students who actively contribute to class discussions would be able to earn the chance to participate in a preferred activity.

Offer Choices

It can also be helpful to give students the chance to make choices about their learning activities. Giving them the chance to choose between different assignments or projects can empower them. It also utilizes their intrinsic motivation for certain subjects to reinforce engagement in others.

Incorporate Technology

Technology can be a great way to help incentivize low-probability behaviors. Offering students the chance to use tech tools to complete educational assignments can help them feel more motivated to learn.

Allow Group Work

Having students work in groups can use social interaction to help reinforce their engagement in academic tasks. Many students find it more enjoyable to work with a peer or small group of students, which may help them feel more motivated to complete activities they might find less interesting if they were working on their own.

By using the Premack Principle, educators can help create a motivating learning environment and increase student engagement.

Other Uses for the Premack Principle

The Primack Principle can be valuable in the classroom, but it can also be utilized in many different areas of life. Some of these can include:

Personal Productivity

Structure your to-do list so that completing less enjoyable tasks precedes more preferred activities. This can serve as a motivational strategy to enhance overall productivity.

Fitness and Exercise

Use enjoyable activities, like watching a favorite TV show or listening to music, as rewards for completing a workout routine. This can help individuals stay motivated to engage in regular exercise.

Time Management

Apply the Premack Principle to manage time effectively. Allocate time for less preferred tasks with the promise of engaging in more enjoyable activities during breaks or at the end of the day.

Healthy Habits

Reinforce healthy habits by pairing them with enjoyable activities. For instance, after completing a nutritious meal, one might indulge in a hobby or leisure activity.

Workplace Motivation

In a professional setting, employers can incorporate the Premack Principle to motivate employees. Completing challenging projects could lead to team-building activities or recognition events.

Parenting Strategies

Parents can use the Premack Principle to encourage children to complete chores or homework by offering opportunities to engage in preferred activities, such as playing games or spending time with friends.

Skill Development

Apply the principle to skill development. Practice less preferred skills with the promise of indulging in activities that align with personal interests and strengths.

Procrastination Prevention

Combat procrastination by employing the Premack Principle. Break larger tasks into smaller, more manageable components, rewarding progress with moments of enjoyment.

If you are trying to make a change or accomplish a goal, consider incorporating the Premack Principle into your life. This way, you can use the activities you enjoy to help drive behavior change and inspire you to get less appealing (but still important) activities done. 

Criticisms of the Premack Principle

The Premack Principle has a wide variety of uses, but it also has some limitations and criticisms. It’s important to recognize that its effects can vary from one person to the next. The things that one person finds enjoyable might not be as motivating for someone else. This can make it hard to apply the principle, particularly if you are working with large groups. 

It’s also important to remember that human motivation is complex. Enjoyable activities can motivate the desire to do less motivating tasks, but there are often other forces as work as well which can affect motivation.

Some other limitations to consider:


The principle is more effective when it is applied to tasks that are closely related or involve similar cognitive and physical processes. In other words, it may be less effective if you are trying to reinforce a low-probability behavior with something unrelated.

Overjustification Effect

There’s also the risk of triggering the overjustification effect. This happens when you give an external reward for an already intrinsically motivating behavior and it leads to a decrease in intrinsic motivation. Sometimes, introducing rewards causes people to change how they view the value of the task.

Ethical Issues

Some critics suggest that using enjoyable activities as a reward poses ethical problems. Not only can it be seen as a bribe, but it can also manipulate people into doing things they might not actually want to do.

Long-Term Sustainability

The Premack Principle might yield positive results in the short term, but its long-term sustainability is debated. Once the novelty of the reinforcement wears off, individuals may revert to their original behaviors.

It’s also important to note that while using the principle might lead to short-term changes in behavior, it may not be sustainable in the long term. Once the novelty of the high-probability behavior wears off or if satiation occurs, they will likely return to their original behaviors.

Key Points to Remember

  • The Premack Principle, named after psychologist David Premack, posits that a high-probability behavior can reinforce a low-probability behavior.
  • It involves leveraging naturally enjoyable activities to motivate engagement in less preferred tasks, making it a versatile tool in behavior modification.
  • The principle finds applications in education, personal productivity, fitness, and various aspects of life, offering a strategic approach to enhance motivation.
  • While valuable, criticisms include individual variability, task-specificity, the risk of overjustification effect, and ethical considerations, emphasizing the need for thoughtful application.


Herrod, J. L., Snyder, S. K., Hart, J. B., Frantz, S. J., & Ayres, K. M. (2023). Applications of the Premack Principle: A Review of the Literature. Behavior modification, 47(1), 219–246.

Jacobs, K. W., Morford, Z. H., King, J. E., & Hayes, L. J. (2017). Predicting the Effects of Interventions: A Tutorial on the Disequilibrium Model. Behavior analysis in practice, 10(2), 195–208.

Kearney, C. A., & Vecchio, J. (2002). Contingency management. In Encyclopedia of Psychotherapy (pp. 525–532). Elsevier.