Virtual Museum Presenting Stimuli

Stimuli are defined both structurally, in terms of their form, and functionally, in terms of their effects on behavior. A commonly studied type of stimulus in behavior analysis is a discriminative stimulus, an SD, or, as it is spoken, “ess-dee.” A discriminative stimulus sets the occasion for a response to be reinforced, at least intermittently. 

The types of events used in the laboratory as discriminative stimuli are most often lights and sounds. Lights and sounds can be arranged in a variety of configurations and combinations, limited only by the availability of apparatus to present and control these stimuli. Lights and sounds, of course, are by no means the only types of stimuli used and studied. An example of the variety of events that have been studied as stimuli is by an experiment conducted by Millard (1979). Millard used the environment shown in the diagram below. A pigeon was placed on either side of a clear plastic partition such that they could see one another, but physical contact was not possible. The response key of the model pigeon was shielded such that the observer pigeon could see the model but not the key. When the model pigeon’s key was red, rapid key pecking was reinforced and when it was green, the absence of key pecking was reinforced. The observer pigeon’s key was always white. However, two conditions were in effect. When the model’s key was one color, pecking by the observer was reinforced and when it was the other color, pecking was not reinforced (extinction). Remember that the observer pigeon could not see the color of the model’s key. Thus, the only stimulus reliably correlated with reinforcement or its absence was the behavior of the model. Under these conditions, the observer learned when to peck to the key and when not to peck because the pecking would not be reinforced. Thus, the model’s pecking or its absence was the stimulus controlling the observer’s pecking. 

The apparatus in this room was designed to present stimuli that, through their correlation with different circumstances of reinforcement, come to control operant behavior. Some of the devices are for presenting simple lights and sounds, but others, like teaching machines, present very complex verbal stimuli. These verbal stimuli come to control verbal responding in principle in much the same way that the simpler lights and sounds come to control lever pressing and key pecking of rats and pigeons, respectively.

About Aubrey Daniels Institute

The Aubrey Daniels institute promotes research and dissemination of science-based best practices in accelerating and sustaining learning. 

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