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Stimulus Control


Techniques Conditioning > Stimulus Control

Description | Example | Discussion | See also



When a stimulus has a predictable effect on a subject, the subject is considered to be 'under stimulus control'.

The response of the subject to the stimulus may be to reliably completing an action or simply be more likely to complete an action. In other words, increasing probability is also a form of control, as well as making the subject react in a certain way every single time.

The action completed may be desired or be not desired. For example a dog may wag its tail and approach a person it likes or may put its tail down and avoid a person who has previously used punishment (and hence made the dog fearful).


A parent says 'make your bed' to a child and 'well done' when the child completes the action. When the child reliably makes its bed when told to do so, it is under stimulus control.

A dog learns that a raised finger means 'sit'. It does not always do so, but it is quite likely to sit when the finger appears.


Stimulus control is the basic value in conditioning. It allows the trainer to give commands that are obeyed. It also increases attention of the subject when they know they need to watch for cues and then complete the action in order to get the reinforcing reward.

The principle of increasing probability is not always appreciated when absolute control is required. This becomes a matter of definition of objectives, of what stimulus control is required. When how a subject behaves is affected by a stimulus, then there is a degree of control, although it is not absolute.  When there is a desire for high reliability in obedience, such as in the military, then training will need to continue until the desired degree of stimulus control is achieved.

Stimulus control can be mutual and two-way, for example when a parent hugs a child and the child smiles, each is conditioned by the other's action. The parent hugs the child in order to get the reward of the smile, while the child predictably smiles when the parent hugs them.

Generalized Stimulus Control occurs where the subject understands the idea of cue, action and reward, and so becomes easier to train.

See also

Reinforcement, Stimulus


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