What is Stimulus Generalization?
Generalization or stimulus generalization in psychology refers to the tendency for a conditioned response to be elicited by stimuli that are similar to the original conditioned stimulus.
When an organism learns to respond to a specific stimulus, similar stimuli can also trigger a similar response. The more similar the new stimulus is to the original conditioned stimulus, the more likely it is to evoke the conditioned response.
For example, if a person develops a fear of a specific type of dog, they may also feel fearful around other types of dogs, even if they look different or have different characteristics. This is because the fear response has generalized to similar stimuli.
Stimulus generalization occurs in both classical and operant conditioning. It is a natural process of responding to stimuli that share similarities with a learned stimulus. Understanding stimulus generalization helps explain how associations and responses can extend beyond the original stimuli, leading to broader and more generalized reactions.
Stimulus Generalization in Classical Conditioning
In Pavlov’s classical conditioning, stimulus generalization occurs when a response that has been conditioned to a specific stimulus also occurs in the presence of similar stimuli. It means that the conditioned response is not limited to just the original stimulus, but extends to similar stimuli.
For instance, imagine a dog that has been conditioned to salivate to the sound of a specific tone. If the dog starts salivating to a slightly different tone, it demonstrates stimulus generalization. The dog has generalized its response to similar stimuli, perceiving them as essentially the same as the original conditioned stimulus.
Also Read: Neutral Stimulus in Classical Conditioning
In this case, the dog’s conditioning to the specific tone has created a generalization effect, causing it to respond to other tones that share similar characteristics. This illustrates how associations formed in classical conditioning can extend beyond the exact stimulus that was initially paired with the unconditioned response.
Stimulus Generalization in Operant Conditioning
In Skinner’s operant conditioning, stimulus generalization occurs when a learned behavior is exhibited in response to stimuli that are similar to the original discriminative stimulus. It means that the behavior, which was reinforced in the presence of a specific stimulus, is also displayed in the presence of similar stimuli.
For example, if a child has been trained to say “thank you” whenever given a cookie by their parents, they may also say “thank you” when offered candy or a piece of cake by someone else. The child has generalized the learned behavior of saying “thank you” to similar stimuli because they share common features with the original stimulus.
Also Read: What is Spontaneous Recovery?
In operant conditioning, stimulus generalization highlights how behaviors can be applied to different situations that share similarities with the original learned context. It demonstrates that the learned behavior can extend beyond the specific conditions in which it was initially reinforced.
Examples of Stimulus Generalization
Let’s look at some of the examples of stimulus generalization.
Sharing Behavior: Extending sharing behavior from siblings to friends and other children
When a child learns to share toys with their siblings, they may also generalize this behavior to other social settings and display sharing behavior with their friends or other children they encounter. The learned behavior of sharing extends to similar situations beyond the original stimulus of sharing with siblings.
Verbal Cue Response: Generalizing sitting behavior to different commands
A dog that has been trained to sit on command may also sit when given similar but slightly different commands, such as “sit down” or “take a seat.” The dog’s learned behavior of sitting extends to responding to a range of verbal cues that share similarities with the original stimulus.
Academic Setting: Raising hand behavior in different classrooms
A student who has learned to raise their hand to ask a question in one classroom may also generalize this behavior to other classrooms or with different teachers. The learned behavior of raising their hand extends to various academic settings that resemble the original stimulus.
Environmental Context: Extending door-holding behavior to different locations
A person who has been reinforced for holding the door open for others in a specific location may generalize this behavior to other locations. They may exhibit door-holding behavior in different environments, such as holding the door open for strangers in a shopping mall. The learned behavior of door-holding extends to similar environmental contexts beyond the original stimulus.
Stimulus Generalization Vs. Stimulus Discrimination
Stimulus generalization refers to the tendency to respond to stimuli that are similar to the original conditioned stimulus, whereas stimulus discrimination involves distinguishing between the original stimulus and other similar stimuli and responding selectively.
In stimulus generalization, the learned response occurs in the presence of stimuli that share common features with the original stimulus. On the other hand, stimulus discrimination occurs when an individual learns to respond only to the specific stimulus that is associated with reinforcement and not to other similar stimuli.
Stimulus discrimination involves recognizing and responding differently to different stimuli, while stimulus generalization involves responding similarly to similar stimuli.
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- Watson, J. B., and Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology 3(1): 1. doi: http://www.scribd.com/doc/250748771/Watson-and-Raynor-1920
- Franzoi. Psychology: A Discovery Experience, Copyright Update. Cengage Learning; 2014.