Psychology Wiki

Assessment | Biopsychology | Comparative | Cognitive | Developmental | Language | Individual differences | Personality | Philosophy | Social |
Methods | Statistics | Clinical | Educational | Industrial | Professional items | World psychology |

Cognitive Psychology: Attention · Decision making · Learning · Judgement · Memory · Motivation · Perception · Reasoning · Thinking  - Cognitive processes Cognition - Outline Index

Stimulus control is the phenomenon of a stimulus increasing the probability of a behavior (operant response) because of a history of that behavior being differentially reinforced in the presence of the stimulus. In other words, stimulus control is basically learning to pay attention to things that we identify in the environment (discriminative stimuli) that give us information about the effectiveness of our behavior: what behavior is likely to be effective or ineffective, under which conditions, and what does that behavior give us (reinforcement or punishment). Therefore, in the presence of those stimuli we are likely to respond differentially.

Imagine the following experiment. A pigeon is trained to peck a left key in order to obtain food (reinforcer). After the animal learns this simple task, a right key is lighted red. Because the right key gives little information for the pigeon, after some time it is ignored. But what would happen if we change the procedure, turning the light on and off, and giving food to the pigeon only when it pecks the left key when the right key is lighted? Under these conditions, the pigeon starts to peck the left key when the right key is on, and not when it is off. Thus, we can say that the pigeon starts to respond differentially in the presence of these two stimuli (right key lighted or darkened). That is, the discriminative stimulus is controlling the pigeon’s behavior. In this context, control does not mean that the pigeon has no choice; it only refers to the probability of responding in the presence of the discriminative stimulus (lighted right key).

The opposite of discrimination, in which a subject learns to respond to one stimulus and not to another stimulus (e.g. the pigeon responds when the right key is on and not when it is off), is generalization. After behaving in a certain way in the presence of one stimulus, animals tend to behave similarly in the presence of a similar stimulus. That is, their behavior generalizes from one stimulus to another. For example, what would a pigeon do if, after being exposed to the procedure described above (i.e., after it learned to peck a left key only when a right key is lighted red), the intensity or wavelength of the light is changed? One way to try to answer to this question would be presenting five variations of the red light, each one presented for a relative brief period (e.g. 5 seconds), and measure the number of responses to the left key to each of the five color variations. The universal result – with pigeons, rats, fungi, monkeys, goldfish and people – is that response is highest to the original training stimulus (in this experiment, the initial red key color), and decreases systematically as the physical difference between the training and the test stimuli increases.

In the Quantitative Analysis of Behavior, stimulus control is examined from a number of perspectives, including Matching to Sample, and signal detection (Nevin, 1965; 1969).

Matching to sample

Matching-to-Sample is a form of conditional discrimination. In this form of conditional discrimination procedure, only one of two or more stimuli presented on other comparison keys from the sample, shares some property (e.g., shape). Responses to the similar stimulus are reinforced. In Oddity matching, a form of matching-to-sample, responses to the comparison stimulus that does not match the sample are reinforced.


Proper stimulus control, is said to have four characteristics:

  • The behavior occurs immediate when the conditioned stimulus is given.
  • The behavior never occurs in the absence of the stimulus.
  • The behavior never occurs in response to some other stimulus.
  • No other behavior occurs in response to this stimulus.[1]

See also


  1. Pryor, Karen (2002). Don't Shoot the Dog!, City: Ringpress Books Ltd.
  • Mazur, J. E. (2006). Learning and behavior. 6th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Nevin, J. A. (1965). Decision theory in studies of discrimination in animals. Science, 150, 1057.
  • Nevin, J. A. (1969). Signal detection theory and operant behavior. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 12, 475-480.
  • Staddon, J. E. R. (2001). Adaptive dynamics – The theoretical analysis of behavior. The MIT Press. London, England.
  • Staddon, J. E. R. (2003). Adaptive behavior and learning. New York: Cambridge University Press. Second (internet) edition:
  • Adaptive Behavior and Learning
Types of learning
Avoidance conditioning | Classical conditioning | Confidence-based learning | Discrimination learning | Emulation | Experiential learning | Escape conditioning | Incidental learning |Intentional learning | Latent learning | Maze learning | Mastery learning | Mnemonic learning | Nonassociative learning | Nonreversal shift learning | Nonsense syllable learning | Nonverbal learning | Observational learning | Omission training | Operant conditioning | Paired associate learning | Perceptual motor learning | Place conditioning | Probability learning | Rote learning | Reversal shift learning | Second-order conditioning | Sequential learning | Serial anticipation learning | Serial learning | Skill learning | Sidman avoidance conditioning | Social learning | Spatial learning | State dependent learning | Social learning theory | State-dependent learning | Trial and error learning | Verbal learning 
Concepts in learning theory
Chaining | Cognitive hypothesis testing | Conditioning | Conditioned responses | Conditioned stimulus | Conditioned suppression | Constant time delay | Counterconditioning | Covert conditioning | Counterconditioning | Delayed alternation | Delay reduction hypothesis | Discriminative response | Distributed practice |Extinction | Fast mapping | Gagné's hierarchy | Generalization (learning) | Generation effect (learning) | Habits | Habituation | Imitation (learning) | Implicit repetition | Interference (learning) | Interstimulus interval | Intermittent reinforcement | Latent inhibition | Learning schedules | Learning rate | Learning strategies | Massed practice | Modelling | Negative transfer | Overlearning | Practice | Premack principle | Preconditioning | Primacy effect | Primary reinforcement | Principles of learning | Prompting | Punishment | Recall (learning) | Recency effect | Recognition (learning) | Reconstruction (learning) | Reinforcement | Relearning | Rescorla-Wagner model | Response | Reinforcement | Secondary reinforcement | Sensitization | Serial position effect | Serial recall | Shaping | Stimulus | Reinforcement schedule | Spontaneous recovery | State dependent learning | Stimulus control | Stimulus generalization | Transfer of learning | Unconditioned responses | Unconditioned stimulus 
Animal learning
Cat learning | Dog learning  Rat learning 
Neuroanatomy of learning
Neurochemistry of learning
Adenylyl cyclase  
Learning in clinical settings
Applied Behavior Analysis | Behaviour therapy | Behaviour modification | Delay of gratification | CBT | Desensitization | Exposure Therapy | Exposure and response prevention | Flooding | Graded practice | Habituation | Learning disabilities | Reciprocal inhibition therapy | Systematic desensitization | Task analysis | Time out 
Learning in education
Adult learning | Cooperative learning | Constructionist learning | Experiential learning | Foreign language learning | Individualised instruction | Learning ability | Learning disabilities | Learning disorders | Learning Management | Learning styles | Learning theory (education) | Learning through play | School learning | Study habits 
Machine learning
Temporal difference learning | Q-learning 
Philosophical context of learning theory
Behaviourism | Connectionism | Constructivism | Functionalism | Logical positivism | Radical behaviourism 
Prominant workers in Learning Theory|-
Pavlov | Hull | Tolman | Skinner | Bandura | Thorndike | Skinner | Watson 
Category:Learning journals | Melioration theory