The role of conditioning on heterosexual and homosexual partner preferences in rats

Partner preferences are expressed by many social species, including humans. They are commonly observed as selective contacts with an individual, more time spent together, and directed courtship behavior that leads to selective copulation. This review discusses the effect of conditioning on the development of heterosexual and homosexual partner preferences in rodents. Learned preferences may develop when a conditioned stimulus (CS) is associated in contingency with an unconditioned stimulus (UCS) that functions as a reinforcer. Consequently, an individual may display preference for a partner that bears a CS. Some UCS may be more or less reinforcing, depending on when they are experienced, and may be different for males and females. For example, it could be that, only during periods of early development, that stimuli associated with nurture and juvenile play become conditioned. In adulthood, other stimuli such as sexual reward, cohabitation, mild stress, or even pharmacological manipulations may function as reinforcers to condition partner preferences. Evolutionary biologists and psychologists must take into consideration the idea that an individual’s experience with reward (i.e. sexual and pharmacological) can override presumably ‘innate’ mate choices (e.g. assortativeness and orientation) or mate strategies (e.g. monogamy or polygamy) by means of Pavlovian and operant contingencies. In fact, it is likely as innate to learn about the environment in ways that maximize reward and minimize aversive outcomes, making so-called ‘proximate’ causes (e.g. pleasure) ultimately more powerful predictors of social behavior and choice than so-called ‘ultimate’ causes (e.g. genetic or reproductive fitness). Keywords: pavlovian; operant; learning; sex; copulation (Published: 15 March 2012) Citation: Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology 2012, 2 : 17340 - DOI: 10.3402/snp.v2i0.17340
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DOI 10.3402/snp.v2i0.17340
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