Premack Principle explained

Premack Principle - Toolshero

Premack principle: this article explains the Premack Principle, developed by David Premack in a practical way. This article contains the general definition of the Premack Principle, its origins, the Theory of Mind and some criticism on the model. After reading you will understand the basics of this psychology theory.

What is the Premack principle? Definition and example

The Premack principle states that more likely behavior will reinforce less likely behavior. That sounds complicated.

In other words, the principle holds that promising something nice can be used to perform something less nice. Chances are you’ve never heard of this term, but it’s frequently used subconsciously.

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For example, in the education of children. Many people have also heard from their parents as children that they had to finish their plates before they were allowed to play outside.

Or that they first had to clean up the mess in their room before they were allowed to watch a movie.

The above are some accurate examples of the use of the Premack principle in everyday life. The Premack principle is also known as Grandma’s law, or relative conditioning theory.

Origin of the Premack principle

The Premack principle is derived from the results of a study on Capuchin monkeys. The investigation was led by David Premack. He found out that there are certain parameters within which monkeys behave.

When applied to humans, the principle has an explanatory and predictive effect on behavior. It is therefore used by therapists and psychologists for behavioral analysis.

David Premack found that if people want to perform a certain activity, the person will want to perform a less desirable activity before reaching the desired activity. In other words, activities can be reinforcers of behavior.

Humans, but also monkeys, are more motivated to perform a certain task if this increases the chance of being able to perform a fun task or activity.

Supporting research

Since David Premack shared his discoveries with the world, several researchers have supported the principle with new findings. One of the first confirmatory studies was conducted by David Premack himself. He determined whether children preferred playing pinball or eating candy.

He then tested two situations: first the children had to play pinball to get candy. Then they had to eat candy to play pinball. He found that in every situation the children preferred the second activity. This was proof of his own established principle.

In a later study by Allen and Iwata, it was found that the willingness to play sports among a group of people with developmental disabilities increased when playing games was counterbalanced.

A study by Welsh, Luthans and Bernstein found that employees at a fast food restaurant did better on tasks they didn’t enjoy when they were presented with a more enjoyable task.

Researcher Brenda Geiger gave primary school students time to play on the school playground after they had completed their regular learning tasks. In addition to increasing motivation and learning ability, this activity reinforced students’ self-discipline and reduced the need for teachers to discipline students.

Theory of Mind

David Premack is not only the creator of the Premack principle, but also presented his Theory of Mind in the same period.

This theory has contributed immensely in the field of neuroscience. Theory of Mind is about understanding one’s own mental states and those of others.

In short, it states that humans are able to recognize thoughts, beliefs, desires, perceptions and intentions of other people. This theory is often referred to when a person remarks that he can “read the mind of another.”

It’s basically a combination of empathy and putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. From this it can be deduced how someone is feeling.

An example. When a teacher stands in front of a busy, noisy class with his eyebrows furrowed and an angry look, students see it. Is it the look on his face? Or is it the way he frowns? Could it be the way he takes his glasses off his face?

It doesn’t really matter what it is. The assumption is that the teacher is angry. This is a good example of the Theory of Mind. By looking at others it is possible to find out what is going on in someone else’s head.

Premack principle summarized

  • The Premack principle is also called the theory of relativity for reinforcement or conditioning
  • It states that a more desirable activity can be used to reinforce a less desirable activity
  • David Premack reinforced his theory with experiments on children and monkeys
  • Although criticized, the principle still has a major impact on psychology and on everyday life, such as in the education of children

Criticism of the Premack principle

Critics have expressed several points of criticism or limitation about the Premack principle.

First, the response to an application of the principle would depend on context. The activities available to an individual to choose from will play a role in whether reinforcement of behavior can be achieved.

A second point of criticism is that a less desirable activity will be less likely to be performed if the more desirable activity is disproportionate to the sacrifice that must be made.

For example, if an hour of study time only results in half an hour of playing video games, an individual may decide not to study to earn game time because the large amount of study time is perceived as too taxing.

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It’s Your Turn

What do you think? Do you recognize the explanation about the Premack principle? Do you ever use this form of conditioning for raising children? Or training colleagues? Do you think this is a way of conditioning that will remain effective in the long run? What other forms of conditioning do you know? Do you have any tips or comments?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Homme, L. E., Debaca, P. C., Devine, J. V., Steinhorst, R., & Rickert, E. J. (1963). Use of the Premack principle in controlling the behavior of nursery school children. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior.
  2. Klatt, K. P., & Morris, E. K. (2001). The Premack principle, response deprivation, and establishing operations. The Behavior Analyst, 24(2), 173-180.
  3. Knapp, T. J. (1976). The Premack principle in human experimental and applied settings. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 14(2), 133-147.
  4. Danaher, B. G. (1974). Theoretical foundations and clinical applications of the Premack Principle: Review and critique. Behavior Therapy, 5(3), 307-324.

How to cite this article:
Janse, B. (2022). Premack Principle. Retrieved [insert date] from Toolshero:

Original publication date: 05/18/2022 | Last update: 08/21/2023

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Ben Janse
Article by:

Ben Janse

Ben Janse is a young professional working at ToolsHero as Content Manager. He is also an International Business student at Rotterdam Business School where he focusses on analyzing and developing management models. Thanks to his theoretical and practical knowledge, he knows how to distinguish main- and side issues and to make the essence of each article clearly visible.


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