Response generalization refers to situations where one stimulus can lead to a range of different responses upon each exposure. An example is when we use varying synonyms of ‘good’ in response to “how are you today?”, so the response is different each time (great, doing well, awesome), but still gets the same point across.
Pierce and Cheney (2017) state that:
“Response generalization occurs when a target response is strengthened and other similar responses increase in frequency” (p. 362).
A Simple Example of Response Generalization
Pierce and Cheney provide the example of a child that has learned how to build a house out of Legos might also arrange the pieces in different ways on different occasions. They are still constructing a house, but each one is slightly different. Although this might seem like an unimpressive display of learning, it can be a significant sign of improvement in a child with autism or other learning disability.
The Many Definitions of Response Generalization
An exact definition of response generalization has a long history of debate/discussion (Stewart, et al., 2013).
For instance, Kazdin (1994) cites Skinner’s (1953) definition as occurring when:
“…reinforcement of a response increases the probability of other responses that are similar [to that response]’’ (p. 54).
Austin and Wilson (2002) propose a definition which suggests that response generalization happens:
“…when reinforced responses co-vary with similar but unreinforced responses’’ (p. 42).
Martin and Pear (2011) define it as occurring when:
“…a behavior becomes more probable as the result of reinforcement of another behavior’’ (p. 193).
Martin and Pear then identify several qualifying circumstances that can constitute response generalization, including the concept of physical similarity, in addition to “minimal physical similarity” or “due to functionally equivalent responses’’ (2011, p. 193).
Cooper, Heron, and Heward (2007) also incorporate the concept of functional equivalence, defining response generalization as:
“…the extent to which a learner emits untrained responses that are functionally equivalent to the trained target behavior’’ (p. 620).
Response Generalization vs. Stimulus Generalization
These two terms are easily confused.
The primary difference is this:
- Response generalization is when the same stimulus may evoke various variations of responses.
- Stimulus generalization refers to different but similar stimuli evoking the same response.
|Response Generalization||Same stimulus||…leads to various responses.|
|Stimulus Generalization||Different stimuli||…lead to the same response.|
An example of response generalization is greeting one particular friend using slightly different expressions, such as saying “hello,” “what’s up,” or simply waving.
Each response version serves the same function and they all occur in the same situation. One stimulus, but many responses.
Contrast that with stimulus generalization, which is when the same response is applied to different, but similar situations.
An example of stimulus generalization is being taught how to ask the price of a shirt in a foreign language, and then using the same phrase when asking how much is a piece of fruit or a meal in a restaurant. The same response is applied to a variety of situations. Many stimuli, but the same response.
Response Generalization Examples
- Getting Mom’s Attention: An infant gets their mother’s attention by fake crying, making a loud shrieking noise, or banging an object on the table.
- Eating Cereal: A toddler was taught to use a spoon to eat cereal. The next day, the child spontaneously uses their small toy shovel to eat cereal.
- Asking to Borrow: A primary school teacher sees a child take another child’s red crayon without asking. So, the teacher instructs the child to ask “Can I borrow that?” Later, the child is heard asking: “Are you finished with that?” and “May I have that?”
- Deescalating Tension: Participants in a conflict resolution program learned several techniques on how to deescalate tension between staff by using deescalating phrases such as “Let’s take a step back.” In the weeks following the training, some participants were heard using phrases such as “Let’s examine the situation from a distance” and “Looking at it more objectively….”
- In a First-Aid Situation: First-aid training teaches how to apply a professional CAT tourniquet to a wound to stop profuse bleeding. However, in a real situation a person might use a belt, a tie, or a torn strip of clothing.
- Explaining Correlational Analyses: Students in a stats class are taught how to describe the results of a correlational analysis by following a template. Many students are then able to use various phrases that are slightly different from what they were initially taught, but still convey the same meaning.
- Asking for a Break: Preschool children were taught how to ask to take a nap by showing the teacher a card with an illustration of a child sleeping on a cot. On the following days, some kids used the card, some asked by putting their head down on their desk, while others asked by pretending to yawn.
- Expressing Affection: In the early stages of a romantic relationship, a couple may express their affection for each other in a variety of ways: buying small gifts, using cute nicknames, or engaging in nonverbal gestures such as holding hands.
- In Teaching Autistic Children: At first, a teacher taught an autistic child in their class to point to the correct picture card when asked. After a while, the student chose not point to the card, but instead picked the card up and handed it to the teacher.
- In Language Acquisition: When learning a language, children will learn a variety of ways to name a specific item. In response to seeing a dog, a child might use the terms “doggy,” “pooch,” or maybe “K-9.”
Applications of Response Generalization
1. In Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a type of psychological intervention designed to change behavior. It relies on the principles of operant conditioning to reinforce desirable behaviors and extinguish undesirable behaviors.
In practice, a therapist or teacher identifies the function, or purpose, of a child’s undesirable behavior, and then applies reinforcement principles to make that behavior less likely to occur.
Response generalization occurs when the student exhibits a new behavior that was not trained, but is functionally equivalent to the trained behavior (Cooper et al., 2007).
As reviewed by Eckes et al. (2023), “Several meta-analyses, including the current study, revealed evidence for a medium effect of comprehensive ABA-based interventions (vs. treatment as usual, minimal or no treatment) on intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior” (p. 16).
Unfortunately, despite the overall effectiveness of ABA interventions in regards to intellectual functioning and adaptive functioning, there is less optimistic conclusions regarding response generalization with language.
As Stewart et al. (2013) explain, “in the case of children with autism, rote, inflexible responding is a persistent problem” (p. 137).
2. In Typical Language Acquisition
Language generativity refers to the ability to produce original phrases and sentences that were not specifically instructed in a classroom setting (Stewart et al., 2013).
For all practical purposes, it is simply not possible to teach all possible variations of the spoken language as it might apply to the infinite number of situations encountered in daily life.
Williams and Williams (2010) explain that:
‘stimulus and response generalization are primary reasons why human beings do not have to be taught every response and under every circumstance in which the response should occur’’ (p. 85).
As a point of contention, Stewart et al. (2013) point out that many definitions of response generalization cannot apply to language generativity because “most examples of language generativity that response generalization is being used to explain cannot be examples of the latter because there is no obvious physical similarity between the novel response and any previously reinforced responses” (p. 139).
Despite the lack of clarity regarding the definition as it applies to language generativity, the phenomenon is prevalent in language acquisition. If the language did not possess this flexibility, then most creative pursuits that entail language would be not exist.
3. In Treatment of Stress and Anxiety
Response generalization is also a central component in some forms of treatment for stress and anxiety (Pierce & Cheney, 2017).
For example, during therapy, the patient can be taught a variety of response options when experiencing stress. Because stress can be triggered by a range of situations, it is important that the client have a variety of response options available to any stress-inducing stimulus.
The patient may be taught how to practice meditation in the privacy of their home, which may not be feasible in an office setting.
At the same time, progressive relaxation or controlled breathing techniques can be used in a private office, or even in public spaces such as while sitting in traffic or on a subway.
The goal is for the patient to recognize that there are a variety of response options (i.e., response generalizations) that can be utilized when experiencing stress or anxiety.
Response generalization is when an individual can exhibit several different behaviors to a particular situation. Those behaviors are similar to a targeted, trained behavior.
This is different than stimulus generalization, which refers to different, similar situations triggering the same response.
One goal of ABA interventions is for children to acquire a desired target behavior, while extinguishing unwanted behavior. Although research has demonstrated that ABA is effective in helping children acquire the targeted behavior, response generalization has been more elusive with some populations.
Therapists often encourage patients to show response generalization when confronting a stress-inducing situation. This is highly adaptive due to the practicalities of various situations which might limit the use of one particular response.
Therefore, being able to utilize various relaxation techniques when feeling stressed is beneficial.
Perhaps nowhere do we see a more practical value of response generalization than in language acquisition. It is impossible to teach each and every possible response to the myriad of situations encountered.
Being able to use language flexibly is a highly valuable skill.
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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]