Premack Principle: A Guide to Using the First/Then Rule

The Premack principle, developed by psychologist David Premack in 1965, provides critical insight into human behavior. Understanding and utilizing this principle allows you to arrange contingencies that motivate others. While this principle has important ramifications across domains, it is most well-known for its impact in Applied Behavior Analysis.

What Is The Premack Principle?

The Premack principle states that a person will perform a less preferred activity (low probability behavior) to gain access to a more preferred activity (high probability behavior). A less preferred activity is defined as one in which the individual is unlikely to choose to do on their own, thus developing the term low probability behavior. A more preferred activity is an activity that the individual would likely choose to engage in on their own, a high probability behavior.

When a high probability behavior (high-P) is made contingent on the engagement in a low probability behavior (low-P), the high probability behavior serves as the reinforcer for the low probability behavior, making that behavior more likely to occur. This is usually presented to the learner in a first/then statement or visual (first _____, then _____). The key to utilizing this principle effectively is to ensure that the high-p activity is actually high-p in the moment it’s presented to the learner. Preferences for activities change frequently for different reasons so it’s important to be aware of the learner’s current motivation for activities.

What Are Other Names For The Premack Principle?

The Premack principle is also known by several different names including “Grandma’s rule,” “first/then,” and a “high-p/low-p sequence.” These terms are often used interchangeably but some people confuse them as being separate theories or interventions.

The term Grandma’s rule came about because of the if/then nature of the contingency. Grandma really knew what she was doing when she said, “if you eat all of your dinner, you can have dessert!” How many children have grown up earning dessert (a high-p activity) after finishing their dinner (a low-p activity)?

The other common names make sense when you look at the contingency underlying the principle. Most commonly, when stating the contingency to the learner, the interventionist says “first _____, then ______” making the name first/then an accurate description. When training parents or staff, it’s often best to choose 1 term and stick with it to avoid confusion. If staff are likely to hear other terms from other supervisors, you should help them understand the interchangeable nature of the terms.

How To Implement The Premack Principle

The Premack principle’s simple nature makes it a great choice for parents and staff who are new to ABA. Implementing the Premack principle involves the following steps:

  1. Identify the low-p behavior or activity
  2. Identify the high-p behavior or activity
  3. Present the contingency to the learner either verbally or with visuals
  4. Wait for the learner to complete the low-p behavior or activity or continue to withhold access if the learner fails to complete the behavior or activity
  5. Grant access to the high-p behavior or activity

The steps are straightforward but it’s important to monitor treatment fidelity so ensure accurate implementation (use the fidelity checklist above). The greatest challenge often comes with accurately identifying an activity that motivates the learner for the “then” part of the contingency. Alternatively, some staff struggle when using a visual with this intervention because they tend to use the visual as a schedule and fail to ensure the high-p/low-p sequence.

Using Visuals

Using visuals with the Premack Principle may improve the learner’s understanding of the contingency and reduces the need to repeat the contingency verbally to evoke the low-p behavior. For learners who read, use a piece of paper or a dry erase board with the contingency written out as in the example below.

Premack Principle written depiction
Premack Principle

Learners who don’t yet read need the contingency presented in images or pictures such as in the example below:

Premack Principle visual depiction
Premack Principle

Click on the information icons below to see which behavior belongs in each spot on the visual.

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Factors That Influence The Effectiveness Of The Premack Principle

Understanding a learner’s motivation in any given moment is the single most effective way to utilize the Premack principle effectively The Premack principle requires motivation for a specific activity to make it a high-p activity. Ensuring motivation for an activity necessitates an understanding of factors that influence reinforcer effectiveness including motivating operations (MOs).

Motivating operations alter the current effectiveness of an item or activity as a reinforcer (or punisher) in any given moment. They also alter the current frequency of behavior that has encountered reinforcement (or punishment) with that item or activity in the past.

Motivating operations have 2 effects on behavior:

  • Value-altering effects-change the value of a specific consequence as a reinforcer or punisher
  • Behavior-altering effects-change the current frequency of behavior that has been reinforced or punished in the past

There are 2 types of MOs:

  • Establishing operations (EOs)
  • Abolishing operations (AOs)

Essentially, as they relate to the Premack principle, MOs are factors that influence the effectiveness of an item or activity as a reinforcer and may evoke behaviors that have produced the item or activity as a reinforcer in the past.

Establishing Operations

Establishing operations make an item or activity more effective as a reinforcer and evoke behaviors that have previously been reinforced by that item or activity.

Abolishing Operations

Abolishing operations make an item or activity less effective as a reinforcer and abate behaviors that have previously been reinforced by that item or activity.

Motivating operations, establishing operations, abolishing operations
Motivating Operations and Their Effect on Reinforcer Effectiveness and Behavior
Establishing OperationsAbolishing Operations
Value-Altering EffectIncreases the value of a reinforcerDecreases the Value of a Reinforcer
Behavior-Altering EffectEvokes behavior that has previously been reinforced by the item or activity Abates behavior that has previously been reinforced by the item or activity
ExampleRunning produces an EO for getting a drink from the refrigerator. Taking a run without carrying a drink increases the value of a drink as a reinforcer and evokes behaviors that have previously resulted in getting a drink (i.e. walking to the refrigerator, opening the door, removing a drink, opening the drink, etc.). In this example, deprivation along with engaging in an activity that creates thirst are the EOs that influence behavior.Drinking water produces an AO for getting a drink from the refrigerator. Drinking water reduces the value of a drink as a reinforcer and abates behaviors that have previously resulted in getting a drink (i.e. walking to the refrigerator, opening the door, removing a drink, opening the drink, etc.). In this example, satiation is the AO that influences behavior.
Examples of Establishing Operations and Abolishing Operations

Competing Contingencies

In the real world, when trying to account for motivating operations, professionals often encounter competing contingencies. These are often unplanned contingencies that interfere with the effectiveness of intervention implementation.

In the examples above, if you’re trying to teach the individual to get a bottle of water from the refrigerator, you rely on deprivation to have an evocative effect on the behaviors needed to obtain the bottle of water. If someone hands the individual a bottle of water before he walks to the refrigerator, there is no need for the individual to complete the task on his own. This noncontingent delivery of water competes with the contingency you planned to evoke the behaviors needed to get the bottle of water.

When interventions fail to result in the expected outcome, check for contingencies that compete with the one you created. These competing contingencies are usually unintentional or delivered by someone who doesn’t truly understand motivation.

Examples Of The Premack Principle

There are limitless possibilities available when using the Premack principle. Each one must be specific to the learner’s motivation at any given moment. Below are some examples of the Premack principle.

  • First clean your room, then you can play video games.
  • Get your homework done, then you can watch TV.
  • If you eat your vegetables, you can have ice cream.
  • Do you want to go swimming? Get your bathing suit on and then we will go.
  • You can have a break after you finish 2 math problems.
  • First put your cup in the sink, then we can blow bubbles.

The Premack principle can be depicted using the ABCs of behavior as in the example below of a learner complying with the demand to use the bathroom:

AntecedentBehavior Consequence
RBT says, “first bathroom, then video.”Learner walks to the bathroom.Learner receives a video.

For a learner who does not comply with the demand, this is what the ABCs would look like:

RBT says, “first bathroom, then video.”Learner says, “no” or refuses to transition.RBT waits and blocks access to the high-p activity.

With the Premack principle, staff can avoid engaging in a power struggle because the contingency is in effect whether the learner complies or not. In the example above, the learner can go about his normal activities without gaining access to the video. Once he eventually goes to the bathroom, staff can then provide access to the video.

Watch the video below for another example!

When you first teach the learner about the Premack principle, you might choose to present a mid-p behavior followed by a high-p behavior. Depending on the learner, this might offer a greater opportunity for the learner to encounter the high-p behavior, especially if the learner is prone to task refusal. For example, if the learner likes to play trains, but is highly motivated for the iPad, you might present the contingency “first trains, then iPad.” This increases the likelihood that the learner complies and encounters reinforcement.

Try this fun activity by dragging and dropping the activities in the correct table on the visual. This is a fun way to teach parents and staff how to use the Premack principle effectively.

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Is The Premack Principle An Antecedent Intervention?

Yes, the Premack principle is considered an antecedent intervention because it reduces the impact of common antecedents on behavior. In other words, presenting a contingency that utilizes the Premack principle makes maladaptive behavior less likely to occur. This is the nature of an antecedent intervention.

Is The Premack Principle Supported By Research?

According to the National Standards Project (National Autism Center, 2015), behavioral interventions including both antecedent and consequence strategies are among the 14 interventions considered “established” in the research. This means that there is a significant body of research that supports the use of these interventions. The Project did not separate out specific interventions as many studies included a complex combination of interventions without a component analysis to determine which interventions actually impacted behavior.

Many studies include the Premack principle as an antecedent component to reduce maladaptive behavior in children with autism (McNamee-McGrory & Cipani, 1995; Hanley, Iwata, Thompson, & Lindberg, 2000; Litoe & Pumroy, 1975).

Ethical Concerns When Using the Premack Principle

Due to the potential need for manipulation of motivating operations, professionals must carefully consider the ethical implications of using the Premack principle. While it’s common and appropriate for adults to restrict access to some items and activities that children enjoy, restricting activities may be unethical depending on many factors including:

  • Age of the learner-restricting access to preferred items and activities for adults is often unethical
  • The nature of the activity-restricting access to preferred activities the provide comfort or other basic needs is inherently unethical

In a study by Hanley, Iwata, Thompson, and Lindberg (2000), the authors used stereotypic behavior as a reinforcer for not engaging in stereotypic behavior. Using DRA and the Premack principle, they reinforced object manipulation and blocked the participants’ ability to engage in stereotypic behavior. The question is not necessarily “does the Premack principle work in this situation” but rather “should we restrict an individual’s right to engage in stereotypic behavior to make this intervention effective?”

For more information about stereotypies, read our post: Understanding Stereotypies and When to Intervene and the post on Including Autism: Autism and Stereotypies where Mary, an RBT with autism discusses the importance of stereotypies for individuals with autism.

To ensure ethical and effective practices, many learners can learn to restrict their own behavior and use the Premack principle when working toward their own goals. Make sure you consider the ethical implications of manipulating motivating operations before you get started using the Premack principle.

5 Ways to Use the Premack Principle You Haven’t Tried

Professionals commonly use this intervention to reduce demand refusal, but there are many practical applications beyond this use. Let’s take a look at some new ways to use this established principle of behavior.

1. Reduce the Intensity of a Special Interest

Children with autism engage in high rates of repetitive behavior and frequently have restricted and repetitive interests. For some children, these interests take on an almost obsessive quality where the child will engage in one behavior to the exclusion of most others. Consistently requiring that the child engage in an effortful task prior to gaining access to this special interest, may, over time, reduce the intensity of that special interest.

For example, a child who only wants to play Minecraft on the iPad may have difficulty playing with anything else. Consistently requiring something effortful before granting access to that activity may reduce the overall intensity of the interest for that activity. This is almost the Premack Principle in reverse.

Typically you want to increase the likelihood that a child engages in a less preferred behavior by offering a more preferred activity after (first/then). In this instance, the sequence remains the same; however, the intent is to reduce the intensity of the desire (MO) for the preferred activity.

2. Teach Peer Initiations by Having a Peer Provide Access to the Preferred Activity

Pairing peers with reinforcement develops a preference for interactions with peers. When you combine this with the Premack Principle, the child learns to approach the peer when they complete the first activity. Through repetition this builds the child’s ability to initiate interactions with peers, although you may still need to program for generalization across situations that don’t include the Premack Principle.

Here’s an example:

You are working with Juan, a 5-year-old boy with autism. While he doesn’t communicate vocally, he is able to use LAMP on an iPad to request some of his favorite things. He struggles with playing functionally with playground equipment aside from the swing (his favorite activity). In order to teach functional use of equipment you decide to use the Premack Principle. You present a visual of “first slide, then swing.”

You decide to take this just a step further and also work on initiating an interaction with a peer. To accomplish this, you have Kevin use Juan’s favorite swing while Juan goes down the slide. Once Juan goes down the slide, you praise him and say, “now you can swing!” You guide Juan to the swing and prompt him to approach Kevin with his device and ask for the swing. Because you had prepared Kevin with how to respond, he says, “sure!” and gives Juan the swing. You repeat this process until Juan begins to approach Kevin independently.

In the above example, using the Premack Principle targets 2 key skills. That’s a lot of bang for your buck! With such limited time to work with children or train staff to implement interventions, crafting interventions that provide multiple benefits offers efficient solutions.

3. Improve Time Management Skills with the Premack Principle

Use the Premack Principle to improve your own time management skills as well as those of your clients. In this fast-paced world we experience constant pressure to accomplish more in less time. Utilizing the Premack Principle in regards to necessary tasks, helps you and your client accomplish this while feeling better about it!

Consistently sequencing more preferred tasks after less preferred tasks reduces the resistance to those less preferred tasks, whether those are your own tasks or your clients. Consider this: a car experiences the resistance of the friction between the tires and the road, but if you give it a little gas the friction matters considerably less. When you use the Premack Principle, the less preferred task provides the friction, but the more preferred task provides the gas. The more preferred the task, the more gas you are giving, and the less the friction matters.

Here’s an example:

At work, you frequently put off completing those tasks you don’t want to do, namely documentation. You have been using the time management strategy of getting easy things done and off your list first so you don’t have to worry about them later. What seems to happen is that you end up never accomplishing those tasks you don’t want to do until the very last minute. This leaves you feeling stressed and overwhelmed.

You decide to use the Premack Principle and apply it to your time management. First, you make a list of all the tasks you must accomplish by the end of the day, in order of priority. Then you resequenced them so that a more preferred activity always follows a less preferred activity. Using this technique encourages you to get through those more difficult tasks to access the ones you would rather spend time doing.

This video by Aubrey Daniels describes the impact of consistently completing less preferred tasks before more preferred tasks. He is well known for his work in leadership and management and he knows how to get things done!

Just as you apply this to your own time management, you can assist your clients in developing these habits. One of the best ways to teach this is through the use of schedules. Teach the to create a schedule and sequence the activities so that more preferred activities follow less preferred activities. For more ideas about using schedules, read our post: Antecedent Interventions: Complete Guide.

4. Use the Premack Principle as a Self-Management Strategy

Self-management is often the ultimate goal not only for our clients but ourselves as well. Teach your clients to establish more self-control, better attention, delayed gratification and self-motivation using the Premack Principle. Reinforcing the independent utilization of the Premack Principle to delay gratification or to attend to tasks supports the child’s use of the intervention as a self-management strategy.

Here’s an example:

You have been working with Julie, a 12-year-old with autism, who has some behavioral issues related to avoiding tasks she doesn’t want to do You teach her to use the Premack Principle to motivate herself to get her work done. Each time she uses the principle, you provide direct reinforcement in the form of social praise, but you also use a token economy so she can earn different backup reinforcers such as time on the computer or lunch with the vice principal.

Take a look at this video by Joel Obermayer about self-management to learn more.

5. Expand Potential Reinforcer Arrays

When a highly preferred activity consistently follows a less preferred activity, the child begins to associate the less preferred activity with the more preferred activity. This can lead to the less preferred activity developing the characteristics of a reinforcer.

Wow, that sounded confusing. Let’s look at an example:

A child consistently earns time to watch a video for building a block tower. Over time, building the block tower may take on some reinforcing value in itself. If this association becomes strong enough, the blocks may become reinforcers, expanding the child’s array of potential reinforcers.

The Premack Principle has many possible uses beyond the basics. These creative approaches will expand your practice and maybe even help you develop some skills of your own!

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