Stimulus Control, poor stimulus control and Intelligent Disobedience

Stimulus Control, poor stimulus control and Intelligent Disobedience;

When I started to write this is seemed like a simple explanation, but it has morphed in to a version of War and Peace!…….

One of the aims of training is to have a behaviour under stimulus control. However, since each behaviour is learned through a set of cues (stimuli, more accurately; discriminative stimuli) then what the learner is really learning is a stimulus class that cues a reinforce/punisher is available should the learner perform behaviour X.

But every now and then a behavior is not performed when the discriminative stimulus(i) is/are presented the learner performs the wrong behaviour, or does nothing.

Depending on the circumstances I have heard this called poor stimulus control of a behaviour or intelligent disobedience. It would be called poor stimulus control if the learner is thought to just not know what behaviour that set of stimuli are cueing, and it would be called intelligent disobedience if the learner is thought to do something else (or do nothing) because there would be a good reason not to do the behaviour.

When we deem this poor stimulus control we tend to lay responsibility on the learner. The learner did not understand the cues (stimuli). But what if the trainer did not present the cues consistently and clearly enough for the learner to understand that they were all the same cue. The learner may have responded to the cue when it looked like V but when the trainer presented what they thought was the same cue and it looked more like W then the learner might get confused. Or yesterday when the learner responded to the cue correctly and today they did not because we have not noticed that the black bucket that was in the training space yesterday is not there today. Unwittingly, the black bucket was learned as part of the environmental stimuli and without one of the stimuli the others combined no longer work function in the way we thought they did.

Although we present one cue that we intend to prompt a behaviour the learner may learn a number of cues combined. Without one part of the combination the behaviour will not be prompted. I often see people offering a cue to their learner saying “this is the cue” but in reality when looking closely the learner has picked out something else, something more meaningful or that has been more consistent throughout the learning process as the cue.

In addition, it is usually very hard, if not impossible, for us to present a cue in the same way every time. As such we are really hoping that the learner will learn a stimulus class (a class of stimuli that all prompt the same behaviour). Just the same as no behaviour carried out will look the same, each attempt will have a slightly different topography and so it is a response class.

Intelligent Disobedience; the learner always performs a behaviour ‘on cue’, the behaviour is under stimulus control. Then one day they do not perform the behaviour and not performing was deemed to be the right answer, dog always crosses the road but today did not because there was a car coming, this is often called intelligent disobedience in response to the cue (stimulus). However, if we look at this situation, this is not being disobedient, this is responding to the cues in the environment which were different. There are only reinforcers available if X, Y and Z are presented, but today X, Y, Z and A were all presented therefore the behaviour is still under stimulus control as the behaviour did not occur when a different set of stimuli were presented.

Or if we ask a horse to back up and they always do, but today they didn’t. If we look closely we will see one or more antecedent stimuli that indicted backing was not the appropriate response.


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