What is Stimulus Generalization?

Everything changes except the law of change. No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.

HERACLITUS, A GREEK PHILOSOPHER

No one encounters the same situation twice. The environment we live in changes constantly. However, a new situation can relate to or share a resemblance to a previous situation. The more a unique situation matches a previous one, the more we’re inclined to react similarly.

Stimulus generalization is referred to as the tendency to respond similarly to different but related stimuli. This phenomenon is the opposite of stimulus discrimination, in which a subject can discern the original trigger from a host of other associated stimuli. Stimulus generalization is mostly observed in people who have gone through some traumatic events. As a result, people start fearing the original stimuli that harmed them and many stimuli that resemble the original stimuli.

Why Is Stimulus Generalization Important?

Stimulus generalization is crucial for us to behave well in society. Most stimuli that affect us somehow relate to each other. We don’t need to behave differently in every situation, especially if a situation matches one we’ve already gone through.

A fair amount of stimulus generalization is required for most autonomic responses, either sympathetic or parasympathetic. As a result, we develop similar reflexes to similar stimuli. Thus, stimulus generalization helps our bodily systems become efficient, robust, and time-saving.

Why is Stimulus Generalization Dangerous?

However, excessive stimulus generalization can cause us to act up in different situations. If one is generalizing a lot, they can miss important distinctions between different situations and respond similarly. In a universe where everything contains mathematical precision, it is perilous to have an abnormal amount of stimulus generalization.

Examples of Stimulus Generalization

For example, people who develop allergies to a particular type of food may also risk aversion to many similar food items. For instance, if someone becomes sick eating oranges, they may also avoid using lemons or any citrus family fruit. This situation can become worse over the years. For some people, especially those who have gone through a traumatic event, this situation can become life-limiting.

Stimulus generalization manifests more clearly in classical conditioning. For example, a dog has been conditioned to salivate upon hearing a bell. The dog salivates because the food follows the bell. If the dog hears a cellphone ringtone and salivates, we can name this phenomenon as stimulus generalization. After the dog learns to discern between a bell and a cellphone ringtone, it no longer salivates on hearing the ringtone. This ability to distinguish between two related stimuli is called stimulus discrimination.

To elaborate stimulus generalization even further, let’s take the example of a kid who happens to be in the middle of a forest. The kid sees a pit viper devouring a mouse and gets terrified of the scene in front of her. After a few days, she comes back home and sees a python in her home garden. The fear of snakes immediately kicks in, and she gets terrified. You can see that a kid doesn’t need to see all types of snakes to develop anxiety. After seeing only one type of snake, a kid can generalize its physical appearance. She can learn to characterize a snake from two eyes on the sides of the head, a rapidly protruding tongue, and a long, round body. This example also illustrates the importance of stimulus generalization in real life. We can’t do without it.

Stimulus generalization can also occur in operant conditioning. For instance, a dog learns that every time the doorbell rings, its master comes in and brings biscuits for it. As a result, the dog starts drooling every time the doorbell rings. However, sometimes, there’s someone else at the door who doesn’t bring biscuits for the dog. As a result, the dog has developed a stimulus generalization. After repeated disappointments, the dog learns to distinguish between different doorbells. It is referred to as stimulus discrimination.

Stimulus Generalization after Traumatic Events

For people who have undergone some traumatic event, it’s normal to develop stimulus generalization. They can become sensitive to not only the original stimulus but a host of similar stimuli. As a result, they can start fearing a broad range of related causes. They can also develop different avoidance responses, anxiety, and feelings of distress when confronted with situations similar to the original one.

Over time, this situation can become life-limiting. People with a traumatic history can start avoiding things. They can become reactionary, over-excited, and less confident. It happens because of stimulus generalization. While the original stimulus has disappeared, it has left its footprints. These footprints get mixed with the marks of similar stimuli and confusion results.

People who suffer from a traumatic memory should learn stimulus discrimination. Learning to discern between different stimuli is the best solution for those who suffer from an abnormal amount of stimulus generalization.

Psychologist

High Ranker is a self-taught psychologist and a freelance writer. He graduated in botany and likes to describe himself as a nature lover. He spends most of his time exploring different subjects and navigating existing academic research. He has a profound interest in health sciences and issues related to scientific research. When he's not writing something, you can find him talking to random people, reading a book, or gardening at home.

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