Premack Principle

The Premack Principle, a big fancy name for something that is quite simple. So, what is it? The Premack Principle is a behavior change procedure that creates the opportunity for an individual to engage in a high-probability behavior once the occurrence of a low-probability behavior is complete. The reason this procedure is successful is because the high-probability behavior will serve as a reinforcer for the low-probability behavior.

A high-probability behavior is something the individual is more likely to do because it is preferred or reinforcing to them. A low-probability behavior is something the individual is less likely to do because it is undesirable or a non-preferred activity to them. For example, a high probability behavior may be watching TV and a low probability behavior may be brushing teeth. Keep in mind that these behaviors will be unique to each individual.

You have probably even used this behavior procedure before, or someone has with your child. It is a commonly used behavior strategy that you may not know you are using but now you have a name for it. How is it used? Anytime you use a first/then statement you are implementing the Premack Principle, simple as that! Remember you want the high-probability behavior (something they are more likely to do because it’s reinforcing) to serve as a reinforcer to the low-probability behavior (something they are less likely to do) so you will state the low-probability behavior first. For example, first put on your coat, then play outside. Another way you could use this procedure would be to say “When/then.” For example, “When you finish cleaning your room, then you can play on the computer.”

You can think of the Premack Principle as a way to structure your child’s schedule with a good balance of preferred and non-preferred activities to help your child be successful throughout the day. Sometimes too many non-preferred activities in a row before getting to engage in a preferred activity can increase challenging behavior. You may say to yourself, this sounds a lot like bribery. The Premack Principle should be used systematically and consistently, and always for the benefit of the child not for the adult, which in turn makes your requests not bribes. It is a way to motivate your child to complete tasks they may not want to do. It is important that you allow your child to engage in the high-probability behavior right after the low-probability behavior as you state so it can serve as a reinforcer to him or her. If you are looking for a simple and effective way to increase compliance with your child and balance his or her schedule, give the Premack Principle a go! Here are other examples:

  • First do three math problems, then play with toys.
  • When you are done putting your dishes in the sink, you can watch a show.
  • Once you finish reading this page, you can play a game.
  • First pick up cars, then listen to music.