Excitatory and Inhibitory Conditioning: What You Need to Know

Inhibitory and excitatory conditioning are two principles of classical conditioning. We'll tell you what they consist of and how they intervene in behavior.
Excitatory and Inhibitory Conditioning: What You Need to Know

Written by Editorial Team

Last update: 16 September, 2022

Excitatory and inhibitory conditioning are the two most relevant sub-paradigms of classical conditioning theory. While excitatory conditioning elicits responses, inhibitory conditioning has the opposite effect. Either way, both play an important role in regulating behaviors.

But what does each one consist of? How are they expressed? Resolving these questions helps us to understand what causes a behavior to be repeated or eliminated. Here are the most important aspects you should know.

What is classical conditioning?

To understand what conditioning is all about, it is necessary to go back to its origins. In this sense, the research of Ivan Pavlov becomes relevant.

The Russian-born physiologist was researching the digestive system of dogs. In his laboratory, he discovered that these animals salivated not only in the presence of meat (stimulus), but also in the presence of another stimulus announcing that the meat was about to be delivered. For example, when he entered the room, the dogs began to salivate.

So Pavlov decided to test this hypothesis and succeeded in converting a neutral stimulus – such as the sound of a bell – into a stimulus capable of provoking the salivation response. Thus, he managed to discover a way to obtain or suppress the desired behavior, laying the foundations and principles of associative learning.

A dog with a bell.
The theory of classical conditioning is a form of associative learning that was first observed by Pavlov in an experiment on dogs.

Keys to classical conditioning

With the above, the physiologist discovered some keys that explain classical or type I conditioning:

  • There’s an unconditioned stimulus (UI), which is one that has the strength or intensity to elicit a response by itself. In this case, it is food.
  • There’s also the unconditioned response (IR), which refers to the reaction expected, or following the presentation of the unconditioned stimulus. Salivation is the expected result of exposing the dog to meat.
  • The neutral stimulus (NS), on the other hand, is one that has no effect on behavior. That is, by itself, it “doesn’t say or trigger” anything.
  • Then there’s the conditioned stimulus (CS), which is the one that arises from associating an unconditioned stimulus and a neutral stimulus (EI + EN).
  • The association is such that the neutral stimulus acquires the properties and elicits the same responses as the unconditioned stimulus. Thus, the conditioned response (CR) arises from the conditioned stimulus.

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What are excitatory and inhibitory conditioning?

These concepts help us to understand how it’s possible to change and shape behavior, based on excitatory and inhibitory conditioning.

Excitatory conditioning

Excitatory conditioning is that in which the conditioned stimulus is positively related to the unconditioned stimulus. In other words, it refers to whatever allows the behavior to continue.

The response occurs “as naturally” as if it were the unconditioned stimulus (showing the meat) thus eliciting the unconditioned response (getting the animal to salivate). For example, if I notice that I can cross the road safely, then I will continue to do so.

Inhibitory conditioning

Inhibitory conditioning predicts that a certain behavior will be suppressed. Therefore, after the presentation of the conditioned stimulus, the non-occurrence or absence of the unconditioned stimulus follows.

It’s an inhibitory conditioned stimulus because it’s negatively related.

Pregnant woman.
Although excitatory and inhibitory conditioning each have specific functions, they simultaneously allow the consolidation of certain behavioral patterns.

Operant conditioning: a further step

Just as classical conditioning refers to learning based on the association of stimuli, “operant conditioning”, the most representative figure, which is Skinner, later emerged.

Based on his experiments, Skinner proposed that human behavior develops or dies out through the use of rewards (positive reinforcement) or punishments (negative reinforcement). In particular, he refers to learning from behavior and its consequences.

What does learning depend on?

We think of learning as a relatively permanent change in behavior. However, there are different ways of learning, and certain conditions are required for it to occur.

We don’t learn in the same way when we are physically and mentally exhausted as when we are rested and eager. In other words, the learning context is fundamental.

On the other hand, it’s also true that not all stimuli work in the same way; some have greater “force” or “power” than others. For example, the learning of taste aversion is considered a “special” case.

If, after eating a certain food, we feel sick and nauseous, this association is consolidated with a single “exposure”. Thus, the next time we see that food, we won’t want to eat it because we remember what we went through.

Similarly, not all people learn in the same way. This is influenced both by physical and genetic conditions (nature) and by the social and cultural context (nurture).

The brain and plasticity

Beyond all the theory, what these learning principles show us is the flexibility our brain has when it comes to creating or modifying behavior. Recall that, previously, the bell wasn’t able to produce salivation, but then it did, based on experience.

Thus, we create meaning. It’s how we learn and gain knowledge. Therefore, there’s nothing established and closed, but human beings can create and recreate our experiences and adapt to our surroundings.

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