Discriminative Stimulus: What It Is And How It Explains Human Behavior

Discriminative stimulus

There are many concepts coming from behaviorism and behavior analysis.

We have heard about operant response, punishments and rewards, positive and negative reinforcers… but there are certain concepts that are less known even though they refer to phenomena that occur daily.

The behavioral concept that we are going to talk about today is the discriminative stimulus, which we can anticipate is the one that acts as “energy” that acts as a warning sign that if something is done there will be consequences. Let’s see in a little more detail what it is about.

What is a discriminative stimulus?

In behavior analysis, a discriminative stimulus is any form of stimulation that acquires the property of signaling to a subject, be it a person or an animal, that a specific behavior that may be carried out will imply a consequence, which may be positive (reward) or negative (punishment)

So we say that something is a discriminative stimulus because it implies a form of “energy” that affects the subject (being a stimulus) and its presence manages to differentiate a response, making it more or less probable depending on the case.

As we have just mentioned, the role of the discriminative stimulus is to signal that if a certain behavior is presented, a certain consequence will be received. This should not be understood as the discriminative stimulus being the one that generates the response, but simply “warning” that if a behavior is performed there will be a consequence, both reinforcing and punitive. In other words, The discriminative stimulus is the signal that informs us of the availability of a consequent

Functional analysis with discriminative stimulus

Let’s better understand this idea with the case of Pedro, a store worker. Pedro is in charge of the cashier, but he has also been assigned other tasks that he does not like, such as organizing the clothes, folding them, and checking to see if there are any items of clothing in poor condition. One day Pedro goes to his boss and complains about the tasks he has to do. The boss, instead of helping him, scolds him for his complaints and tells him that this is what his job consists of and that if he doesn’t like it, he can leave. Since then, Pedro, when his boss is around him, does not dare to complain for fear that he will be fired.

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If we do a quick functional analysis here we can identify three points:

If Pedro complains again while in front of the boss, he will most likely scold him for his comments and could even fire him. As a result of all this, Pedro stops complaining when his boss is close to him, which effectively implies that the possibility of Pedro carrying out the behavior in question, complaining, while his boss is in front of him, who acts as a discriminative stimulus.

As we have commented The discriminative stimulus does not imply a consequence, but is the signal that this consequence will happen if the behavior is performed That is, the presence of the boss does not mean that Pedro is going to be scolded or fired, but rather it serves as a warning sign so that he does not behave in a way that his boss does not like and that results in a reprimand or reprimand. the loss of the job.

On the other hand, if Pedro is out of work with his colleagues in a bar and knows that they don’t like his boss either, we have a different situation. Here Pedro will feel freer and will have no qualms about complaining about both his work and his boss. He complains and complains again and his colleagues support him, further reinforcing his behavior and making Pedro continue complaining until he lets off steam. Here the discriminative stimulus is the companions

In other words, if Pedro complains about his boss in front of his colleagues while outside of work, he will receive their support as a consequence and, therefore, this behavior will be reinforced.

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Other examples

There are countless examples that help us further understand the idea of ​​discriminative stimulus.

For example, Let’s imagine that we go out into the street and see that the sky is cloudy (ED1) and we feel a little cold (ED2) Because of this we decide to go back into the house, we take an umbrella (RO1) and we put on our jacket (RO2), so if it rains we won’t get wet (C1) and we won’t be cold (C2). That is to say, the fact that the sky is cloudy and cold increases the chances that we take an umbrella and cover ourselves and, as a result, we avoid being cold and getting wet.

Another case is the typical scene of a mother taking her son to a psychologist because at school they have complained that he behaves very badly. She tells the professional that at home she behaves well, that she does absolutely nothing wrong, but that at school they say that she messes up a lot. What actually happens is that the child, if he behaves badly at home in the presence of his mother (ED), she is going to punish him very severely (C), and that is why he chooses to behave well at home (RO ).

Relationship with the delta stimulus

In functional analysis there is another concept that is related to the discriminative stimulus, but in a sense that could be said to be the opposite: the delta stimulus This type of stimulus informs us of the non-availability of a consequence for a given behavior, neither positive nor negative.

Relating it to Pedro’s case, if he is alone in the bathroom and knows that no one will listen to him, he complains loudly about his boss. In this case, no one scolds him for his complaints, but he doesn’t support him either, he receives absolutely nothing as a result of his criticism.

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So, we can see the difference between the discriminative stimulus and the delta. In the case of discriminative, there is a consequence that influences the subject’s behavior, increasing or reducing it depending on whether he receives a reward or a punishment for committing it. Instead, In the delta stimulus there is no consequence, directly serving as a signal that whether the behavior is done or not, there will in no way be a reward or punishment for it

We can see the union of both types of stimuli in a classic experiment with rats. Let’s imagine that we have one of these little animals in a cage where there are two lights: one green and one red. When the green light turns on (ED), if the rat presses a lever (RO), a piece of food will be dispensed (C). Thus, when the animal associates pressing the lever with the green light on with receiving food, it is quite likely that it will press the lever every time that light turns on.

But what happens when the red light turns on? In this case the animal does not receive food, whether it presses the lever or not. That is to say, The red light on acts as a delta stimulus, a signal that nothing is going to happen after such a stimulus is presented, no matter how much the animal presses the lever over and over again. Thus, as the red light turns on so many times, the animal will associate that it is of no use to press the lever in that case, and this behavior will become extinct over time because there is no positive or negative reinforcement.