Written by Niki Tudge ©



When an animal has learned a behavior in one situation and the behavior carries over to a different situation then the behavior is said to have generalized (Chance, 2008 p. 301). Stimuli never occur in isolation, they are a part of a context or situation in which the behavior is learned. With respondent conditioning the conditioned response generalizes from the conditioned stimuli to other stimuli. With operant generalization it is not just specific behaviors that generalize. A broad based behavior such as “trying,” if reinforced on one task, can generalize to other tasks.  This is a phenomenon called learned industriousness (Chance, 2008 p. 301).


Generalization can be increased by training the animal in a variety of locations.  However, generalization is not always a good thing as problem behaviors or conditioned emotional responses can also generalize making them more troublesome. When a behavior generalizes it does not mean it is equally as likely to occur in all new situations, but there is a “pattern and sense” (Chance 2008 p 302).  If the new stimulus resembles the training stimulus then the generalization will be greater (chance 2008 p 308).   When a behavior is punished or a change in behavior is produced through extinction, generalization can also occur.   Learned behavior can generalize on the abstract features of stimuli not just the physical features.  This is referred to as semantic generalization.


Generalization and discrimination are inversely related.  The more discrimination between stimuli the less generalization there will be (Chance, 2008 p. 308).  Discrimination occurs when a learned behavior occurs in context or situations that closely resemble the training environment but not in situations that are different. The animal has a tendency to respond to stimuli present during training and not to respond to stimuli that were absent during training.


Discrimination training is the procedure used to establish discrimination between stimuli. In respondent conditioning an animal can be trained to discriminate and behave differently in two situations. The animal may respond to the CS+ but not to the CS-.  With Operant conditioning one stimulus, SD, indicates a behavior that will be reinforced and the S? indicates the behavior will not be reinforced.  Both SD and S? are discriminative stimuli.  Discrimination occurs when one consequence is more reinforcing than another and the animal behaves differently in the situations.  Difficult discriminations can be shaped by gradually making the stimulus (CS+, CS- or SD, S?) more alike (Chance, 2008 p. 309).





Chance, P. (2008) Learning and Behavior, Wadsworth Cengage Learning