Factors Affecting Stimulus Control: Stop in the Name of Salience!

Updated: Aug 23

What is stimulus salience (besides something fun to say)?

Let's take a step back and talk about stimulus control. Stimulus control is when a behavior is emitted more often in the presence of an antecedent than in its absence because of its history of reinforcement, punishment, or extinction.

Preattending skills are a prerequisite skill for stimulus control!

  • Looking at instructional materials

  • Looking at the teacher when responses are modeled

  • Listening to oral instructions

  • Sitting quietly for short periods of time

  • These may need to be taught before stimulus control procedures are implemented

Stimulus salience: the salience of the stimulus influences attention to the stimulus, and therefore ultimately the development of stimulus control.

•Salient cues include specific rooms, colors, or people. Some stimuli have more salience than others, depending on the sensory capabilities (and learning style) of the individual.

•Stimulus Salience refers to how obvious or prominent a stimulus is in a person’s environment.

•Increased saliency facilitates efficiency of instruction.

Masking and overshadowing: competing stimulus that blocks the behavior or a stimulus that interferes with a discriminative stimulus.

Masking: When the salience of a stimulus is decreased. A competing stimulus blocks the evocative power of the stimulus, decreasing its effectiveness. *Masking interferes with responding.

Example: Ike passed his driver's test last fall. When driving with his friends they were all chattering loudly; Ike totally missed the stop sign and drove through the intersection, barely missing a collision.

Overshadowing: The presence of one stimulus condition interferes with the acquisition of stimulus control by another stimulus. *Overshadowing interferes with acquisition.

Example: Lily is still learning to identify safety signs in an array of 6-8 images, she doesn't respond to the teacher's instructions to "show me the stop sign" when the principal walked into the classroom to have his morning meeting.

How do we reduce the effect of masking and overshadowing?

Take off the mask, and move out of the shadows!

In order to reduce the effect of overshadowing and masking, apply antecedent interventions:

•Arranging the environment to reduce “noise” from the unwanted stimulus

•Making the instructional stimuli intense

•Consistenly reinforcing behavior in the presence of the desired stimulus

Learn more information about stimulus control, stimulus salience and more with our #TruLiveCrew! Check out our # TruCrew alumni testimonials here!


Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2019). Applied behavior analysis (3rd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Pearson, p. 116-118.

Luiselli, J. (2005). Stimulus control. In M. Hersen, J. Rosqvist, & A. M. Gross (Eds.), Encyclopedia of behavior modification and cognitive behavior therapy (pp. 1549-1552). SAGE Publications, Inc., https://www.doi.org/10.4135/9781412950534.n3134

The Behavior Analyst Certification Board Professional and Ethical Compliance Code for Behavior Analysts. 2017.Professional And Ethical Compliance Code For Behavior Analysts. [online]

Practice Question Answer: B

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