premack-principle

Premack Principle In A Nutshell

The Premack principle posits that more probable behaviors reinforce those that are less probable. In other words, an individual will perform a less preferred activity (low probability behavior) to obtain access to a more preferred activity (high probability behavior).

Understanding the Premack principle

The Premack principle was developed after a study of capuchin monkeys conducted by David Premack in 1965.

Premack gave monkeys access to four different toys and recorded the time they spent playing with each.

He then limited access to the toys whilst giving the monkeys access to the toys they played with the longest. 

However, access to the popular toys was only provided if the monkeys first played with less desirable toys.

Over time, the monkeys became wise to the experiment and started playing with undesirable toys longer to obtain access to their favorite toys.

Premack then decided to repeat the experiment with children with each given a choice between pinball and eating candy.

Premack first determined which of the kids preferred eating candy and which preferred pinball and split them into two groups. 

The first group of candy lovers was required to play pinball before they could eat candy, and the second group of pinball lovers was required to eat candy before they could play pinball.

Premack found that no matter what their preference, each child performed the least desirable of the two activities to get what they wanted.

This tendency became a theory of reinforcement known as the Premack principle. In essence, the more probable response in any pair of responses will reinforce the less probable response.

Premack principle examples

The Premack principle is sometimes known as “Grandma’s rule” because of the way grandparents encourage their grandchildren to eat more healthily. 

Many of us have childhood memories of being told that we’d only be able to eat cake if we ate our vegetables first.

The same principle also applies to parents who will only allow their children to play video games once their homework is done.

The principle can also be useful in some workplace scenarios as a motivation tactic.

In a 2022 study by Welsh, Bernstein, and Luthans, employees of a fast-food restaurant were observed over a 7-week period with five of them selected at random and offered a proposition.

If the performance of these employees exceeded baseline levels at a less desirable workstation, they would be offered more time to work at their favorite station.

Compared to the employees who were not offered the proposition, employee performance at the less desirable workstation increased with the prospect of spending more time in a more desirable area of the restaurant.

Key takeaways:

  • The Premack principle posits that an individual will perform a less preferred activity (low probability behavior) to obtain access to a more preferred activity (high probability behavior).
  • The Premack principle was developed after a study of capuchin monkeys conducted by David Premack in 1965. Premack later conducted a similar experiment with children and found that irrespective of their preference between pinball and candy, they would perform the less desirable activity to get what they wanted.
  • The Premack principle can also be useful in some workplace scenarios as an employee motivation tactic. A study of fast food workers found that those who were promised more time at their favorite workstation worked in less desirable areas more productively to gain access to it.
Scroll to Top
FourWeekMBA