This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 05 table of contents.


Generalization occurs when an organism makes the same response to similar stimuli. The size of the response typically depends on the degree of similarity. If a dog receives meat powder after hearing a 500 Hz tone, it will probably salivate when hearing a 450 Hz tone also, but not as much as it would to another 500 Hz tone. It would salivate less to a 400 Hz or 600 Hz tone…and even less to a 300 Hz or 700 Hz tone. Pavlov found that the greater the resemblance between stimuli used during training and stimuli used during testing the greater the generalization. In other words, more salivation would occur if a tone was close to the training tone, less salivation would occur if the tone was very different from the training tone.

When does generalization occur? When the stimuli are tones, what determines the amount of generalization? How can generalization be a more complex issue in real-world situations?

Generalization is often an important phenomenon in real-world settings. A therapist may work with a client to reduce anxiety states triggered by some kind of stimulus (let's say, dirt and contamination) by having the client imagine the feared situation (touching dirt) while staying deeply relaxed on the therapist's couch. But will the exercises performed in the therapist's office generalize to real world settings? One can never tell. The greater the resemblance of the training situation to the testing situation, the more generalization should occur. That is why in vivo (naturalistic or real life) therapies often work best. For example, a person who is anxious about contamination by dirt is encouraged to touch actual dirt, dug from the ground, while the therapist stands by for encouragement. A person who is anxious about flying is best taught to remain calm during actual airplane flights. That helps insure the results of therapy will carry over to future real world settings where the therapist is not present.

However, no two situations are identical. If an organism notices differences between situations rather than similarities, generalization will not occur. For example, a horse that responds well to one rider may be stubborn for another. Would the students in Landauer's class jump if one of their classmates stood up and shouted "Now!"? Maybe some would jump. If they did, they would be showing generalization. But others might not jump. They would be showing discrimination, the opposite of generalization. Discrimination is described in the next section.

How do little children show overgeneralization?

Generalization often involves our knowledge of the world. If two stimuli are interpreted as the same, a person will generalize between them. Little children go through a phase in which they show overregularization (a form of overgeneralization) in language and thinking. A one-year-old child may call all 4-legged creatures "doggies." This shows the crude nature of the child's categorization processes.

In what way is generalization often made the focus of therapy?

Therapists often try to help their clients redefine traumatic experiences to avoid overgeneralization. If a person has a bad experience with a member of the opposite sex, will that permanently affect all relationships with all individuals of the opposite sex? If so, that might be overgeneralization. Re-thinking or re-categorizing experiences can prevent overgeneralization. For example, the therapist might encourage a person to see that "one person hurt you" but "not all men are alike" or "not all women will hurt you."

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