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Using the Premack Principle

The search for effective reinforcers sometimes requires creative thinking. Here is a case history in which the Premack principle was employed with good results. The Premack principle, discussed earlier, is the idea that preferred or high frequency behaviors can be used to reinforce less preferred, low frequency behaviors.

How was the Premack principle used to help Burton, the strange 13-year-old?

Case #S-13. Burton had been forced out of school because of his bizarre mannerisms, gestures, and posturing. It was generally assumed that he was a severely schizophrenic child, albeit a highly intelligent 13-year-old. He acted belligerently toward his parents and was destructive of home property. He had been known to punish his parents by such behaviors as pouring buckets of water over his head in the middle of the living room, but his high probability behaviors were to publicly assume a semifetal position, and, alternately, to lock himself alone in his room for long hours. Reading the homework assigned by his visiting teacher was low probability behavior. Neither he nor his parents rated any objects or people as reinforcing. Initially, therefore, the reinforcement of "retiring to his room" was used, contingent upon completing his homework assignment.

Later, he was returned to a special education classroom. Low probability behavior was classwork, and high probability was escaping alone to a corner of the schoolyard. A contingency was established in which Burton was allowed to leave the class after completion of his assignment. Later, school attendance became a high probability behavior. At that point, he was allowed to attend school only contingent upon more acceptable behavior at home. (Tharp and Wetzel, 1969, p.47)


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