Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Pavlovian feed-forward mechanisms in the control of social behavior

Michael Domjan a1, Brian Cusato a2 and Ronald Villarreal a3
a1 Department of Psychology, University of Texas, Austin, TX 78712
a2 Department of Psychology, University of Texas, Austin, TX 78712
a3 Department of Psychology, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405


The conceptual and investigative tools for the analysis of social behavior can be expanded by integrating biological theory, control systems theory, and Pavlovian conditioning. Biological theory has focused on the costs and benefits of social behavior from ecological and evolutionary perspectives. In contrast, control systems theory is concerned with how machines achieve a particular goal or purpose. The accurate operation of a system often requires feed-forward mechanisms that adjust system performance in anticipation of future inputs. Pavlovian conditioning is ideally suited to subserve this function in behavioral systems. Pavlovian mechanisms have been demonstrated in various aspects of sexual behavior, maternal lactation, and infant suckling. Pavlovian conditioning of agonistic behavior has been also reported, and Pavlovian processes may likewise be involved in social play and social grooming. Several further lines of evidence indicate that Pavlovian conditioning can increase the efficiency and effectiveness of social interactions, thereby improving their cost/benefit ratio. We extend Pavlovian concepts beyond the traditional domain of discrete secretory and other physiological reflexes to complex real-world behavioral interactions and apply abstract laboratory analyses of the mechanisms of associative learning to the daily challenges animals face as they interact with one another in their natural environments.

Key Words: aggression; biological theory; control theory; feed-forward mechanisms; learning theory; nursing and lactation; Pavlovian conditioning; sexual behavior; social behavior; social grooming; social play.