Backup reinforcer is an alternate reinforcement used to reinforce a behavior that fails to be reinforced by the primary reinforcer. It is a secondary form of reinforcement that is used in circumstances where the primary reinforcer is not available or effective. It helps to maintain the desired behavior and can be used in both positive and negative reinforcement.


Backup reinforcers were first introduced by B.F. Skinner in his 1938 publication “The Behavior of Organisms”. He described backup reinforcers as an alternative reinforcement that can be used when the primary reinforcement fails to reinforce a desired behavior. Additionally, Skinner proposed that the effectiveness of the backup reinforcer depends on how similar it is to the primary reinforcer.

Since then, backup reinforcers have been used in a variety of contexts. For example, it has been used to help children with autism and other developmental disabilities to learn new skills and to help motivate employees in the workplace.


Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: An experimental analysis. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Geller, S. J., & Egel, A. L. (2014). Reinforcement and reinforcers. In A. Repp & N. Singh (Eds.), Handbook of research in autism spectrum disorders (pp. 637–653). New York, NY: Routledge.

Hoffman, C. M., & Johnson, J. L. (2014). Using backup reinforcers to increase engagement and performance in the workplace. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 47(2), 397–399.

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