Stimulus and Response Generalization: An Introduction and Training Tips

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Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

bSci21Media, LLC

Brett DiNovi, M.A., BCBA

Brett DiNovi & Associates

Behavior analysts are contextual.  They view the world as action in context.  As such, the contingency between behavior and environment holds a central place in their work, and may be depicted in its most basic form in the following graphic:

We have an antecedent stimulus – an object or event which occasions behavior – which is then followed by a reinforcing or punishing consequence.  We know if a stimulus functions as a reinforcing or punishing consequence based on the future rate of the behavior.  Consequences don’t need to occur all the time, just enough to exert functional influence over the behavior.

If you take the three-term contingency literally, it is easy to fall into an oversimplified view of how these things work.  In reality, the contingency is just a construct that allows us to fulfill our pragmatic goals of prediction & influence of behavior.  Many antecedents, behaviors, and consequences occur all of the time, and simultaneously.  Consequences don’t reinforce a particular form of behavior, but an entire class of behavior.  Similarly, contingencies don’t make particular stimuli more likely to evoke or suppress behavior in the future, they make entire classes of stimuli more likely to do so.

The class concept forms the basis of Skinner’s selection by consequences, and stimulus/response generalization.  For selection to operate, and for generalization to occur, variation must be present.  And in nearly everything we do, our behavior is usually a little different each time.  The focus on classes means stimulus and response generalization occur naturally and are highly adaptive learning mechanisms.  Sometimes, though, we may need to explicitly teach them.

In a recent video, May Beabrun, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) at Brett DiNovi and Associates, provided an introduction to generalization and teaching tips focused on child learners.  She noted that stimulus generalization occurs when a response is occasioned by stimuli that weren’t explicitly used in training.  For example, when we learn to drive a car, most of us can do so with most any type of car in the future, without explicit training.

Response generalization, by contrast, occurs when topographically different yet functionally similar responses occur in the presence of similar stimuli.  For example, we can hold a utensil in different ways to eat, greet our best friend in different ways, or as May said, we can use our teeth instead of scissors to cut a string.  All of the responses produce functionally similar outcomes in the presence of similar stimuli, yet they all look different.  We are after functions here, not topographies.

If you find yourself in a situation in which you need to teach generalization skills to a child, May suggested focusing on multiple exemplars, or multiple examples of stimuli and responses.  For example, the response of hand washing can be practiced across different settings in which hand washing is important. Or the concept of “carrot” can be taught by varying the number of carrots used, the size, different foods in which carrots are used, the perspective in which you see a carrot and so on.

Response generalization, by contrast, would focus on varying the responses to similar stimuli that produce a similar effect.  Another way to think about response generalization is within the context of creativity.  Nearly any task or outcome can be produced many different ways and social/community skills are great areas here.  For example, you can create fun challenges with your learners focused on broader outcomes like “making friends”, “helping people”, “cooperating with kids on the playground”, “greeting people” etc.…

For more ideas and teaching tips, be sure to check out the full video and subscribe to BDA’s Hacking Applied Behavior Analysis YouTube channel.

How do you use generalization in your work?  Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!


Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is a science writer, social philosopher, behavioral systems analyst, and the President and Founder of bSci21Media, LLC, which aims to connect behavioral science to the world in an engaging, non-academic way.  Dr. Ward received his PhD in behavior analysis from the University of Nevada, Reno under Dr. Ramona Houmanfar.  He has served as a Guest Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and as an Editorial Board member of Behavior and Social Issues.  His publications follow a theme of behavioral systems analysis, organizational performance, theory & philosophy, and language & cognition.  He has also provided ABA services to children and adults with various developmental disabilities in day centers, in-home, residential, and school settings, and previously served as Faculty Director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Dr. Ward can be reached at [email protected]

Brett DinoviBrett DiNovi, M.A., BCBA has the unique and distinguished experience of studying the principles of applied behavior analysis under the rigorous scrutiny of both Dr. Julie S. Vargas (formerly Skinner) and Dr. E.A. Vargas at West Virginia University’s internationally recognized program. For the past 26 years, Brett has used behavior analytic principles to create large scale change across school districts, Fortune 500 companies using principles of Organizational Behavior Management (OBM), and across individual learners. Brett has been a OBM consultant in Morgantown WV, an instructor at West Virginia University, a guest lecturer at numerous universities, a speaker on multiple Comcast Newsmakers TV programs, an expert witness in due process hearings, has publications in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, and has been in in executive leadership positions across schools and residential programs nationwide. In addition to an award from South Jersey Biz Magazine for “Best Places to Work,” an award for “Best of Families” in Suburban Magazine, and the distinguished “Top Ranked U.S. Executives” award, Brett’s proudest accomplishment is being a role model and father for his daughter and two stepchildren (one of which has autism). Brett can be reached at [email protected]

*Sponsored content by Brett DiNovi & Associates.

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