Magic Mustang Tamer

Inhibitory Learning: my reading

Each paper in the “My Reading” series is an interpretation of a scientific paper on a topic of interest to animal trainers. This paper is presented in preparation for an in-depth look at the utility of exposure therapy in the training of horses and burros.

Enhancing Inhibitory Learning: The Utility of Variability in Exposure

READ: Date: 1 March 2020 Reason: researching flooding as a training technique

CITATION: Knowles, K. A., & Olatunji, B. O. (2019). Enhancing Inhibitory Learning: The Utility of Variability in Exposure. Cognitive and behavioral practice26(1), 186–200.

KEYWORDS: flooding, exposure therapy, inhibitory learning, training principles, systematic desensitization, emotional processing, tolerance of uncertainty

QUESTIONS ASKED: This review paper covered the history of exposure therapy, adding a comprehensive discussion of the value of variability of exposure.


SIGNIFICANCE: This paper provides a way to compare and contrast various forms of exposure therapy, as well as extending awareness of the parameters of exposure.

KEY CONCEPTS: The modern model is called Inhibitory Learning. It was preceded by systematic desensitization, flooding, and emotional processing theory.

Systematic desensitization has 3 steps: 1) learning to relax on cue; 2) identifying a graded hierarchy of fearful stimuli/situations; 3) treatment by alternating graded exposure and relaxation. Relaxation is incompatible with fear.

Flooding was developed after sys.des. It does not require either relaxation nor a graded hierarchy. It is still used at times and maybe preferred by highly motivated clients.

The Emotional Processing Theory invokes habituation to neutralize emotional response. According to this theory, the fear is minimized by repeated exposure.

The Inhibitory Learning Model does not aim to reduce fear but increases tolerance of fear by building new respondent associations between stimuli and a lack of danger. The conditioned stimulus is paired with an absence of the unconditional stimulus. The subject learns that the feared consequences do not happen.

The most effective and durable inhibitory learning was not tied with 100% loss of response during treatment, unlike extinguishing behavior. Increasing the variability of the stimulus improved results, creating greater fear tolerance. Associated factors were tolerance of uncertainty and expectancy violations facilitating learning and memory recall. Tolerance of uncertainty is a characteristic of an individual. Those with low tolerance of uncertainty are less able to discriminate between safety and danger signals. Presenting the stimuli in a way to increase variability increased tolerance.


  • inhibitory learning – learning that diminishes a response
  • expectancy violations – stimuli that behave counter to prediction
  • interoceptive – acting on the body and sensation


  • Would intolerance of uncertainty look like the pessimistic attitude where everything is interpreted in the most negative light?
  • In what dimensions could there be variability in the presentation of the human to the animal?
  • How would the results and efficiency of systematic desensitization compare with building tolerance to fear/unpredictability?

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