Therese A Kosten

Drugs as Discriminative Stimuli Human behavior is influenced by numerous stimuli in the environment. Those stimuli acquire behavioral control when certain behavioral consequences occur in their presence. As a result, a particular behavioral response becomes more or less likely to occur when those stimuli are present. For example, several laboratory experiments have demonstrated that it is possible to increase a particular response during a stimulus (such as a distinctively colored light) by arranging for reinforcement (such as a preferred food or drink) to be given following that response when the stimulus is present; when that stimulus is absent, however, responses do not produce the reinforcer. Over a period of time, responding will then occur when the stimulus is present but not when it is absent. Stimuli that govern behavior in this manner are termed discriminative stimuli and have been widely used in behavioral and pharmacological research to better understand how behavior is controlled by various stimuli, and how those stimuli, in turn, might affect the activity of various drugs.

It is important to recognize that there are differences between discriminative stimuli that merely set the occasion for a response to be reinforced and other types of stimuli that directly produce or elicit responses. Discriminative stimuli do not coerce a response from the individual in the same way that a stimulus such as a sharp pierce evokes a reflexive withdrawal response. Instead, discriminative stimuli may be seen as providing guidance to behavior because of the unique history of reinforcement that has occurred in their presence.

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