Discrimination learning

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In psychology, discrimination learning is the process by which animals or people learn to respond differently to different stimuli.[1] It was a classic topic in the psychology of learning from the 1920s to the 1970s, and was particularly investigated within:

  • comparative psychology, where a key issue was whether continuous or discontinuous learning processes were concerned in the acquisition of discriminations
  • human cognitive psychology
  • the experimental analysis of behaviour, where a key issue was whether discriminations could be trained without the necessity for the subject to make errors
  • developmental psychology, where a key issue was the changes that occur in the process of discrimination as a function of age
  • cross-cultural psychology, where a key issue was the role that the cultural appropriateness of the stimuli to be discriminated played in the rate of acquisition of effective discrimination
  • mathematical psychology, where attempts were made to formalise the distinctions being drawn in other branches of psychology.

While interest in the learning of discriminations has continued in all those fields, from about 1980 onwards the phrase "discrimination learning" was used less often as the main description either of individual studies or of a field of investigation. Instead, investigations of the learning of discriminations have tended to be described in other terms such as pattern recognition or concept discrimination. This change partly reflects the increasing diversity of studies of discrimination, and partly the general expansion of the topic of cognition within psychology, so that learning is not now the central organizing topic that it was in the mid-20th century.


  1. ^ Discrimination Learning at the US National Library of Medicine Medical Subject Headings (MeSH)