Discrimination Stimulus

Discrimination Stimulus is connected to conditioning and behaviorism. Any emotion you experience through the mediation of your senses is a stimulus. The various senses you experience, such as seeing, hearing, feeling a touch on your body, etc., can either be neutral, pleasurable, or unpleasant. The first scientist to begin comprehending animal and human responses referred to this as stimuli.

The capacity to distinguish between various stimuli and respond differently to each one is known as discrimination. Discriminating allows for the creation of a functional connection. This can be a behavior-reward or punishment contingency to a single stimulus dimension like a voice tone, color, etc.

Once you understand what the word stimulus means, you realize that it may cause various reactions. A child’s ability to obey orders depends on how well or poorly he has been trained. So a concept of stimuli and reaction was developed to characterize how animals react to some stimulus they saw or felt to understand the difficulties encountered while interacting with them and people.

All About Discrimination Stimuli

It is no surprise that an organism’s capacity to adapt to new stimuli is significantly influenced by previous experiences with similar stimuli. According to conditioning, an organism’s associations and interactions with similar stimuli in the past determine how its behavior will develop in the future.

Keeping that in mind, when discrimination stimuli are defined, it refers to an organism’s capacity to distinguish between two comparable stimuli. The organism can form new associations through stimulus discrimination. This allows the organism to respond to two new stimuli in a new or appropriate manner. [1]

Discrimination Stimuli Vs. Generalization Stimuli

There are two ways that stimuli might be interpreted: stimulus generalization and stimulus discrimination. A subject has discriminated stimulus when it exclusively responds to that particular stimulus after being trained to do so and not to comparable but different stimuli.

However, a stimulus was shown to be generalized if a person responds to other, comparable stimuli in addition to the one that was conditioned. In psychology, generalization is the propensity to react uniformly to various but related stimuli. For instance, a dog trained to salivate in reaction to a tone of a certain pitch and volume will likewise salivate often in response to tones of higher and lower pitch.

The differences will become clearer if you consider a well-known experiment known as the Little Albert Experiment. Because a white lab rat was associated with a loud, disagreeable noise, Little Albert was taught to be scared of it. The stimulus is discriminated if Albert was only frightened of the white rat and not any other white animals.

If Albert started to fear all the animals that are white in color, the stimulus is general. The basic concept is the same: while stimulus generalization refers to responding to the taught stimulus and comparable stimuli, stimulus discrimination refers to responding just to the taught stimulus. Generalizing is using a term in a broad sense.

When a stimulus is not known but is similar to a particular stimulus, which leads to the stimuli sharing association, a form of interaction is generally applied to the unknown stimuli. If the desired outcome is connected to the known stimulus, the type of interaction employed to get there may be repeated in interactions with stimuli with comparable properties.

Generalization stimuli are a type of learning strategy distinct from discriminating stimuli. Stimulus generalization and discrimination are, in fact, opposing processes. For example, generalization is equivalent to a mother lactating to the noise of anyone’s baby sobbing and not just her baby’s crying. Discrimination is more like excluding one voice, perhaps that of her baby, from all the others.

Take dolphins as another example. Generally, a trained dolphin responds to the conditioned stimulus regardless of the horn’s pitch or the trainer’s choice of the horn. Contrarily, prejudice would manifest in the dolphin’s refusal to react to any horn.

This is where the dolphin is picky and only reacts to one particular horn they were trained to recognize. Like discriminatory people, the dolphin ignores everything that is similar but not identical. [1]

Discrimination Stimuli Different To Other Conditioning

Several other conditioning terms can be confused with discrimination stimuli. Here is how each one is different in reaction to stimuli.

Habituation is the term used to describe a decrease in reaction to a specific stimulus after repeated exposure. In plain English, continual exposure to an event or object eventually causes the response or reaction to diminish. For instance, the sound of a gun going off for sprints may be startling to a runner at first.

However, with continued exposure, the runner will no longer be startled when it goes off. The same applies for a student not used to studying with distractions. The sound of a loud fan may at first irritate a student who is studying. Still, when the student is exposed to the noise repeatedly, he or she will develop a tolerance for that, and the noise will no longer bother them.

When a previously learned behavior is not reinforced, it is said to have gone extinct. Both operant and classical conditioning experience this. For instance, after Pavlov’s dog was trained to salivate when a bell rang, the dog gradually ceased salivating when the bell rang repeatedly, but no food appeared. The ability to differentiate between various stimuli is referred to as discrimination.

For instance, you might feed your pet as soon as you get home from work. Because of this, your pet will do its best to rush to the door as soon as they hear your car pull into the driveway. At some point, your pet will anticipate getting fed as soon as any person pulls up in their car. They will rush to the door whenever they hear any vehicle pull in front of your house.

Suppose none of the other family members ever give your pet food as soon as they get home as you do. In that case, your pet will gradually discover that the only thing to be enthusiastic about is the sound of your particular car rolling into the driveway. That is stimulus discrimination, and as you can see, it is vastly different from other stimuli conditioning.

Because your pet learns to reject all other car sounds as unimportant to his receiving food and only discern the precise sound that signals the arrival of food. The repeated application of a discriminative stimulus to elicit a certain reaction raises the likelihood that the desired response will take place.[2]

Discrimination Stimuli In Classical And Operant Conditioning

Associative learning has to do with both classical conditioning and operant conditioning. In both situations, what is discovered is the association between two or more things. The types of things associated and how training occurs distinguish them from one another. Therefore, here is how discrimination stimuli work in classical vs. operant conditioning.

Classical Conditioning

The foundation of classical conditioning is the unconsciously formed associations between various stimuli. Pavlov’s dog is a great illustration of how this works in practice. It’s natural for dogs to begin salivating as soon as they spot food. Humans do not need to condition the dog as it is a reaction that occurs naturally.

Since no one had to condition the dog with anything to make it salivate, the food is known as the Unconditioned Stimulus. Because the dog’s salivation is a natural response and not something anyone had to condition into him, it is known as the Unconditioned Response. One refers to the stimuli and the other the response.

This is where it gets more perplexing to understand. To create a conditioned stimulus, some kind of stimulus must be intentionally introduced. The Conditional Stimulus is created if the person feeding the dog wears a distinguishing clothing article like a white coat while conducting this experiment in a lab.

The dog has now been conditioned to salivate whenever he sees a person wearing a white lab coat instead of just the food. The dog’s salivation is now referred to as the Conditioned Response. The majority of classical conditioning occurs spontaneously and without conscious thought.

Operant Conditioning

The term operant refers to the modulation of behavior. Operant conditioning involves altering a subject’s behavior, as the name implies. This is accomplished through either positive or negative reinforcement or punishment. Positive usually involves giving or contributing something, while negative actions involve taking something away.

A subject learning which antecedents result in reward and which ones do not is known as stimulus discrimination. The use of a reward is positive reinforcement. Giving your child sweets when they do something you wanted them to do, like making their bed, is one illustration of this. As a result, it makes it more likely that your child will repeat that behavior.

Getting rid of something unpleasant is negative reinforcement. This can be clearly seen in a case where a person experiences frequent migraines and discovers that taking aspirin makes it better. It is no surprise that that person will keep using the medication. As a result, there is a higher chance that the behavior will occur.

The use of an unpleasant consequence is known as positive punishment. A child getting put on time out for bad behavior is an example. Positive punishment decreases the likelihood that the behavior will happen again.

The taking away of something sought is negative punishment. For instance, if your kid does not listen or misbehaves, you might take away their favorite toy. This lessens the likelihood that the undesirable behavior will happen again.[3]

Why Is Discrimination Stimuli Important?

The ability to discriminate between stimuli is crucial for learning. You can respond to the right stimuli without generalizing your response to other stimuli when you have the ability to discriminate between different stimuli.

One method for teaching people to behave solely in the presence of a specific stimulus is called stimulus discrimination training. This could be useful when instructing people to behave a certain way only in particular circumstances.

Although the types of things or situations that are feared vary depending on the anxiety disorder, a general mechanism causes dread to spread to unrelated but harmless things. This causes avoidance of things and situations that are not actually dangerous.

This tendency to overgeneralize seems to be a key factor in maintaining anxiety disorders. Promoting discrimination learning can lessen the fear of generalization. Limiting the generalization of the fear response might also be beneficial for lowering anxiety and phobic reactions.

The ability to respond to stimuli is crucial because our schooling primarily aims to develop them. We have mastered the art of responding to verbal cues with appropriate speech.  Everything we do is founded on knowledge. We have learned how to respond appropriately to every stimulus the globe presents.

 Because of this, we must acquire a wide range of knowledge and develop the ability to recognize various indicators. We would only be aware of the images we have trained ourselves to perceive as stimuli from all the images we can view. However, because there are endless stimuli, our brains can only store a finite amount of information.

We only react to a select few signs because of this. The problem with generalizing is that it is necessary to recognize a fair number of stimuli to function in daily life. We must act appropriately in response to every stimulus.

Generalization entails establishing that very same functional connection to numerous stimulus dimensions. When you’re training certain stimulus relations, discrimination differentiation is helpful. Though behavior analysis is still a pragmatic science, separating the two as distinct ideas in today’s complex world is difficult since they are inextricably linked.[4]


As mentioned above, discrimination stimuli are different from any other conditioning. It has to do with being able to react in suitable ways to different kinds of stimuli instead of responding to stimuli in the same way simply because they are similar.

Discrimination stimuli play an important role in how people react to different circumstances and situations. Without it, people would not be able to respond appropriately to different kinds of similar stimuli.


Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.