A secondary reinforcer is a type of reinforcer that does not possess inherent value or utility but acquires reinforcing properties through association with primary reinforcers or other secondary reinforcers.


In behavioral psychology, a reinforcer is any stimulus or event that strengthens or increases the likelihood of a desired behavior. While primary reinforcers have inherent value and directly satisfy basic biological needs (such as food, water, or relief from pain), secondary reinforcers are learned and acquire their reinforcing qualities through association with primary reinforcers.

Secondary reinforcers are usually paired with primary reinforcers or other secondary reinforcers through a process called conditioning or associative learning. Over time, they become associated with the same positive effects as the primary reinforcers, and can act as powerful motivators for behavior.


Examples of secondary reinforcers include:

  • Money: While money itself does not have any intrinsic value, it can be used to acquire primary reinforcers such as food, clothing, or shelter.
  • Praise: Verbal approval or recognition from others can serve as a secondary reinforcer, as it is often associated with feelings of acceptance and social validation.
  • Tokens: In token economies, tokens or points are given as secondary reinforcers and can be exchanged for primary reinforcers or privileges.
  • Grades: In educational settings, grades act as secondary reinforcers, as they are associated with achievements, recognition, and future opportunities.

The effectiveness of secondary reinforcers may vary depending on individual preferences, cultural factors, and personal experiences. What works as a secondary reinforcer for one person may not be as motivating for another.