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Simple Stimulus Learning Explained

Updated on March 19, 2014

Simple Stimulus Learning

While learning can be defined as a fairly permanent change in behavior brought about by experience, stimulus learning includes those things we learn through our senses, known as Perceptual Learning, and by exposure to different stimulus, or Simple Stimulus Learning. A
stimulus is something from our environment that elicits a response from the individual who is exposed to it. Repeated exposure to the same stimulus can cause a decrease in response,
which is called habituation, or a preference for the stimulus to develop through the
mere exposure to the stimuli itself. There are many real-world examples using these techniques, but the two that will be discussed in this paper are how habituation affects our eating habits and how using simple stimulus learning procedures can treat fears and phobias.


The basic concept behind habituation is that the more one is exposed to a certain stimulus, the less reaction there will be. However, if the stimulus is withdrawn and then reintroduced there could be a temporary increase in the response. Habituation is measured by way of response times. These include startle response, eye blink response, blood flow changes, and galvanic skin response that are changes in the skins ability to conduct electricity caused by an emotional response. For infants, habituation is measured by a change in the quantity, or length of time, of visual fixation on the stimulus (Terry, 2009).

Habituation occurs when an individual is repeatedly exposed to the same stimuli, which allows individuals to focus on what is important to him or her in a world full of distractions. On a daily basis people are exposed to repetitive noises. There is the ticking of clocks, the squeak of a ceiling fan spinning, people talking in the background, dogs barking, and children at play, not to mention the internal sounds of our own bodies at work. Even though some conditions like ADD make it hard to block out these types of noises, for the majority of people habituation gives them the ability to disregard them and focus on what needs to be done. For example, writing a research paper for school (Raygor, 2005).

Habituation can be evaluated through the use of a standard set of criterion. First, the more often the stimulus is repeated, the more the response is reduced either in size of frequency. Second, if the stimulus is held back for a while the response to the stimuli can recover. The amount of time between exposures to the stimuli will affect the level of habituation. For instance, being exposed to the stimulus many times in a short period of time will produce habituation for the short-term, but continued exposure to the stimulus spread out over time could produce more long-lasting habituation. Temporary return of the response to the stimulus may return if a different stimulus is presented, which is known as dishabituation. Last, habituation is specific to the stimulus that the individual was exposed to, and although some generalization to similar stimuli may occur, it does cover every new stimulus (Terry, 2009).

Perceptual Learning

There are a number of different factors that can have an effect on perceptual learning. Anytime an individual is exposed to a stimulus he or she will learn certain things about that stimulus. When presented with similar types of stimulus, learning to perceptually distinguish between them is possible. This type of learning is improved by increased focus on the specific details that distinguish one stimulus from another. Repeatedly showing the same stimulus does not help the individual determine which characteristics are required for identification, whereas presenting contrasting stimuli will give him or her something to compare it to that will highlight the distinguishing features. Starting with simple differentiating features, like the direction of a backslash versus forward slash can enhance the learning process and facilitate distinguishing more complicated differences down the line. Although perceptual learning does not require feedback from the examiner, it does require attention from the individual (Terry, 2009).

Stimulus Exposure

While repeated exposure to a stimulus sometimes results in a reduction in the response level that is not always the case with Stimulus Exposure. Another result is known as the Mere Exposure Effect that occurs from continued exposure to a stimulus as well, but causes a preference for the stimulus to develop. This occurs in both humans and animals and is demonstrated in preferences for familiar objects, locations, and foods. Just being exposed to a stimulus could lead to a liking for or preference of a particular stimulus. Once a stimulus has been introduced there is a chance repeated exposure will elicit a reaction or recognition of the stimulus that is known as the Priming Effect. When an individual is in a heightened emotional state, it can cause a higher level of reaction to a stimulus as well (Terry, 2009).

Simple Stimulus Learning

Although habituation is considered a primitive, or basic, learning technique it is being used to study eating habits, including how much we eat, why we stop eating, and obesity. It is particularly effective when studying single-food snacks or meals. According to Epstein, Temple, Roemmich, and Bouton, 2009, people stop eating when they have become habituated to the food. Someone eating a simple single food snack, like an apple for instance would habituate to the food sooner than someone eating a more complex single food snack made from more individual ingredients, like pizza. Dishabituation and distractors also play a role in this example. Some foods are connected to specific activities, like eating popcorn at the movies. Popcorn is a relatively simple single food snack. In this case the movie acts as both a distractor, taking the individuals attention away from eating, as well a dishabituator for popcorn eating as the motivation to eat continues past the normal level as watching the movie continues to reactivate the urge to eat popcorn. In this situation eating probably will continue until either the popcorn bucket is empty, the movie is over, or to the point were continued eating becomes uncomfortable. Eating food without any environmental distractors would result in less food consumption than eating food while watching television, reading a book, or other distractors during the duration of the meal (Epstein, Temple, Roemmich, & Bouton, 2009).

Stimulus exposure is often used in the treatment of anxiety and phobia disorders. This is known as emotional flooding or implosion therapy and involves controlled exposure to the stimuli or situation that causes the anxiety or is the basis of the phobia. The treatment would start off with limited exposure. The exposure is increased over time either with higher levels or closer proximity to the object that causes the fear. For instance, if a patient was afraid of snakes this treatment might start of with viewing still pictures of snakes, to short movies of snakes, to having a snake in a cage close by, to eventually holding a snake for gradually increasing lengths of time. It could also include starting with smaller, less frightening varieties of snakes to larger, more threatening ones, depending on the level and type of fear (Terry, 2009).


We learn from our experiences, but there are many techniques and tools in stimulus learning that help clarify exactly how the learning process develops and functions through different situations. We live in a world full of distractions and habituation is one way we learn to ignore distracting noises and function, but it is also a tool that can be used to understand basic learning experience that occur through repeated exposure to stimuli. Learning can occur because of what we sense in perceptual learning, and through the stimuli we are exposed to in simple stimulus learning. Understanding all of the terms involved in these types of learning can be a challenge, but as they become more familiar they are concepts that can be identified and experienced both in psychological studies as well as everyday life.


Epstein, L. H., Temple, J. L., Roemmich, J. N., & Bouton, M. E. (2009). Habituation as a

determinant of human food intake. Psychological Review, 116(2), 384-407. doi:10.1037/a0015074

Raygor, R. (2005). The science of psychology. New York, New York: McGraw-Hill. Retrieved


Terry, W.S. (2009). Learning and memory: Basic principles, processes, and procedures (4th ed.).

Boston: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon.


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      hmmmm 17 months ago

      Although perceptual learning does not require feedback from the examiner, it does require attention from the individual (Terry, 2009)....

      Not sure if this is true... see Takeo Watanabe's work

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