Stimulus generalization occurs when an organism responds to a stimulus in the same way that it responds to a similar stimulus. This occurs during the classical conditioning process.
For example, imagine that a dog has been conditioned to run to its owner when it hears a whistle. The dog exhibits the same response when it hears a small child emit a high-pitched shriek. This is an example of stimulus generalization. The animal responds to the similar stimulus in the same way it would to the conditioned stimulus.
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Examples of Stimulus Generalization
One of the most famous examples of stimulus generalization took place in an early psychology experiment. In the Little Albert experiment, the behaviorist John B. Watson and his assistant Rosalie Rayner conditioned a little boy to fear a white rat. However, the boy would exhibit the same response when he saw similar items such as a furry white toy and Watson’s white beard.
The Impact of Stimulus Generalization
Stimulus generalization can have an impact on how people respond to different stimuli. For example, imagine in school that children are expected to line up for lunch when they hear the ding of a bell. However, another similar-sounding bell also rings when the kids are expected to sit at their desks for reading time.
If stimulus generalization occurs, the children will have trouble determining which response they are supposed to give. For example, the kids might all line up for lunch instead of sitting in their desks when the reading time bell sounds.
Because of this, stimulus discrimination is also important. This involves the ability to distinguish between two similar stimuli. For the school kids in our example, they might experience stimulus generalization at first, but as they become more familiar with their school schedule and the unique sound of each bell, they will eventually learn to discriminate between the two bells.
Stimulus generalization can have an impact on the learning process in both classical and operant conditioning. Sometimes this generalization can be a good thing. In school, kids may learn skills in one setting that can then be transferred over into similar situations. In other cases, it can lead to confusion and complication if there is a need to be able to distinguish between similar stimuli.
Fortunately, people can learn how to tell the differences between similar stimuli and avoid stimulus generalization if necessary.