When they announce a radar on the highway you know you need to slow down. If you see a sign that says “WC” you know that by following it you will reach the bathroom. And if the light is green, you know you can cross. All of the above are examples of the discriminative stimulus; and, as you can see, they are very present in our daily lives.
These stimuli are signals that we find in the environment that help us regulate our behavior. They tell us when to proceed with certain behaviors to achieve the desired consequences. If you want to know more, please continue reading.
The discriminating stimulus
First, understand what a discriminating stimulus is it is necessary to talk about behavioral psychology. This current studies human behavior and understands it as the result of the relationship between stimuli and responses.
That meansEvery behavior is preceded by a stimulus and followed by consequences.. Based on these associations, a conditioning is created that changes our way of behaving.
For example, If after giving a certain answer we receive a reward or avoid a punishment, we will learn to repeat that answer. Otherwise (acting in a certain way we get negative consequences) we will reduce the frequency of emission of that response. This is what is called operant conditioning, a phenomenon studied by authors like Skinner or Thorndike.
Now, what role does the discriminative stimulus play in this whole picture? Well, that’s the sign it tells us when we can take action because positive consequences are available at that time or place.
For example, a “bakery” sign tells us that this is where we should buy bread. In any other place, (for example, a clothing store), our request will not have the desired response.
So the discriminating stimulus doesn’t make us emit a certain behavior or not, this depends on the consequences. But if signals when conditions are right to do it.
Features and examples
The discriminative stimulus, therefore, is the signal that indicates the opportunity to answer. But this can be of a very different nature.; from symbols, sounds or lights, to people, objects or environments.
Here are some examples of this so that you can gain more clarity:
- A mouse is placed in a cage with a light bulb and a lever. If you press the lever when the light is green, you are offered food. If you do it when the light is off, this doesn’t happen. The green light is in this case the discriminating stimulus.
- When a child cries, his mother always assists and comforts him, but his father does not. The presence of the mother will become a discriminating stimulus which will indicate that the crying behavior will have the desired consequence at that time.
- A traffic radar tells us that, at that moment, slowing down will bring us a positive consequence (avoiding a fine).
- Seeing our partner in a good mood tells us that if we tell him a joke or make a joke in that moment, he will laugh and take it well. In other circumstances (for example, when she is irritated or angry) our behavior would not be reinforced.
Decidedly, this stimulus helps us discriminate at what times or before what items the reinforcer is available. And we learn this because a certain behavior has previously been reinforced in the presence of said stimulus.
The discriminative stimulus and its relationship with the delta stimulus
If the discriminative stimulus tells us that reinforcement is available, the delta stimulus does exactly the opposite: tells us that our behavior will probably not have the expected consequence.
For example, we are used to the fact that when we press the switch, the light turns on. But, if there is no current, no matter how hard we push, nothing will happen. Thus, the lack of electrical power acts as a delta stimulus.
Another example could be that of a child who, when he collects toys in the presence of the teacher, receives praise and praise; But, if he does it in the presence of his peers, it is not reinforced. Thus, the teacher would be the discriminating stimulus (indicating the opportunity to act to obtain a reward) and the classmates the delta stimulus (in their presence the positive consequence does not occur.
Stimulus control is present in our daily lives
These concepts, which seem so theoretical and hardly applicable to reality, certainly govern our daily behavior. If we didn’t learn to detect and pay attention to discriminatory stimuli, we’d spend our time emitting unnecessary and inappropriate behaviors. For example, try buying food at a stationery store or telling jokes at a serious business meeting.
Knowing how to distinguish when we will get positive consequences and when not it guides our behavior and makes it more efficient and appropriate. In addition, these behavioral methods are very useful in child rearing and psychotherapy to change inappropriate behaviors and establish more adaptive ones.
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