The article was last updated by Dr. Emily Tan on February 9, 2024.

Have you ever wondered how behaviors are unlearned in psychology? Extinction is a process that involves the reduction or elimination of learned behaviors through various techniques.

In this article, we will explore the different types of extinction, its causes, effects, and real-life examples in psychology. From overcoming phobias to breaking addictions, extinction plays a crucial role in shaping our behaviors and emotions.

Join us as we delve into the fascinating world of extinction and its applications in therapy.

Key Takeaways:

  • Extinction is the process of unlearning a previously learned behavior or response.
  • There are two types of extinction: classical conditioning extinction and operant conditioning extinction.
  • Extinction can have real-life implications, such as overcoming phobias, breaking addiction, and improving relationships through unlearned behaviors.
  • What Is Extinction in Psychology?

    Extinction in psychology refers to the process by which a previously learned behavior diminishes over time due to the absence of reinforcement or the removal of the stimuli that once prompted the behavior.

    In behavior modification, extinction plays a critical role in reshaping behaviors. By eliminating the reinforcement that was maintaining a behavior, individuals learn that the behavior no longer leads to the desired outcome. This process of unlearning can be challenging but is crucial for breaking unwanted habits or responses. Furthermore, extinction is closely tied to learned associations as individuals start disassociating the behavior from the expected outcome, paving the way for new learning and behavior patterns.

    How Does Extinction Differ from Extinguishing?

    Extinction and extinguishing, though related, differ in their mechanisms within the realm of psychology. While extinction involves the gradual fading of a learned behavior due to lack of reinforcement or the removal of associated stimuli, extinguishing refers to the sudden cessation of a behavior through active intervention or disruption of the learned associations.

    In extinction, the individual learns that a previously learned behavior no longer produces desired outcomes or stimuli, leading to its decline over time. This process involves a gradual reduction in the frequency and strength of the behavior until it is ultimately extinguished.

    On the other hand, extinguishing is more immediate and typically involves the introduction of a new stimulus that interferes with the learned behavior, causing it to stop abruptly.

    What Are the Types of Extinction?

    Extinction manifests differently based on the type of conditioning involved. In classical conditioning, extinction occurs when a conditioned response diminishes after the conditioned stimulus is no longer paired with the unconditioned stimulus. In operant conditioning, extinction refers to the weakening of a behavior due to the lack of reinforcement that previously maintained it.

    In classical conditioning, the process of extinction is essentially unlearning a learned association. For instance, if a dog was conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell (conditioned stimulus) by being paired with food (unconditioned stimulus), the extinction process would involve repeatedly presenting the bell without food until the dog no longer salivates at the bell alone. This gradual decrease in the conditioned response characterizes classical conditioning extinction.

    On the other hand, in operant conditioning, extinction can be illustrated by a scenario where a child no longer receives attention (reinforcement) for temper tantrums, eventually leading to a decrease in the tantrum behavior. It’s the absence of the reinforcing consequence that drives the extinction process in operant conditioning.

    Classical Conditioning Extinction

    Classical conditioning extinction, as demonstrated by Ivan Pavlov and his famous experiments with dogs, illustrates the gradual disappearance of a conditioned response when the conditioned stimulus no longer predicts the unconditioned stimulus.

    In Pavlov’s experiments, the conditioned response was initially elicited by presenting the conditioned stimulus (like the sound of a bell) along with the unconditioned stimulus (like food). Over time, as the conditioned stimulus continued to be presented without the unconditioned stimulus, the conditioned response weakened and eventually disappeared. This process is known as extinction in classical conditioning. It’s a fundamental concept in psychology that highlights the relationship between stimuli, responses, and learning.

    Operant Conditioning Extinction

    Operant conditioning extinction involves the gradual reduction of a behavior due to the absence of reinforcement that once maintained it, particularly in cases of previous partial reinforcement schedules where the behavior was only intermittently rewarded.

    When a behavior is consistently reinforced, and then that reinforcement ceases, the individual may initially exhibit a period of increased response known as an extinction burst. This burst is essentially a last attempt by the individual to obtain the reinforcement that is no longer available.

    In the context of partial reinforcement, where the behavior was only sporadically reinforced, extinction may take longer to occur due to the unpredictability of reinforcement. This unpredictability creates a persistence in behavior, as the individual continues to engage in the behavior in hopes of receiving the reward.

    What Are the Causes of Extinction?

    The causes of extinction can be attributed to factors such as resistance to change, alterations in contextual cues, or the removal of reinforcing stimuli, leading to the fading of learned behaviors in various settings, including educational environments and phobia treatments.

    Resistance to change, for example, plays a significant role in the extinction process. Individuals or organisms may resist adapting to new circumstances, hindering their ability to learn new behaviors and consequently leading to the extinction of previous ones. In educational settings, this resistance can manifest in students who struggle to unlearn incorrect information or outdated study habits.

    Lack of Reinforcement

    One of the primary causes of extinction lies in the absence of reinforcement, where behaviors that are no longer rewarded or reinforced gradually diminish and eventually extinguish, highlighting the critical role of reinforcement in behavior change and learning processes.

    Reinforcement, whether it be positive or negative, plays a crucial part in shaping human behavior. When individuals receive reinforcement for their actions, they are more likely to repeat those behaviors. This principle is fundamental in psychological studies and findings, showing that reinforcement not only influences immediate responses but also has long-term effects on behavior patterns.

    In the field of education, the concept of reinforcement is extensively utilized to motivate students and enhance their learning experiences. Teachers often employ various forms of reinforcement, such as praise, rewards, or positive feedback, to reinforce desirable behaviors and academic achievements.

    The absence of reinforcement, conversely, can lead to the extinction of behaviors. Without feedback or rewards, individuals may lose interest or motivation, causing their actions to diminish over time. Recognizing the power of reinforcement is essential in creating effective strategies for behavior modification and promoting sustained behavioral change.

    Change in Environment

    Changes in the environment can trigger extinction processes, causing behaviors to diminish or intensify rapidly in response to new contextual cues, as seen in phenomena like extinction bursts and their applications in rehabilitation settings.

    Extinction bursts refer to a sudden increase in the frequency or intensity of a behavior before it decreases to extinction levels. This phenomenon occurs when an organism faces a lack of reinforcement after previously receiving frequent rewards for a behavior.

    Understanding extinction bursts is crucial in behavior modification as it helps in predicting and managing behavioral changes. In rehabilitation contexts, therapists leverage extinction bursts to facilitate the gradual decrease of maladaptive behaviors and encourage the development of positive, adaptive behavior patterns.

    By recognizing how environmental changes can impact behavior and trigger extinction processes, professionals can tailor interventions to support individuals in adapting to new circumstances and achieving lasting behavioral changes.

    Spontaneous Recovery

    Spontaneous recovery in extinction refers to the temporary resurgence of an extinguished behavior following a period of rest or absence of reinforcement, a phenomenon often addressed by therapists like Rula in behavior therapy sessions, where insurance coverage may play a role in treatment continuity.

    During this phase, the previously suppressed behavior comes back, showing that extinction does not eliminate the behavior entirely but rather suppresses it temporarily.

    Therapists like Rula are well-versed in recognizing and managing this spontaneous recovery, guiding patients through the process of re-extinguishing the behavior.

    Factors such as the intensity of the initial extinction, the duration of the rest period, and the reinforcement schedule affect the likelihood and strength of this resurgence. In behavior therapy interventions, understanding and effectively managing spontaneous recovery are crucial to achieving long-term behavioral change.

    What Are the Effects of Extinction?

    The effects of extinction extend beyond behavior modification, influencing mental health outcomes and the restructuring of learned associations in accordance with principles of behaviorism.

    Witnessing the disappearance of a familiar behavior or stimuli can cause distress and confusion, impacting mental well-being. Individuals may experience heightened anxiety or feelings of loss, especially if the extinction process disrupts their usual routines or coping mechanisms.

    The reconfiguration of learned associations during extinction can lead to shifts in perception and response. Through the lens of behaviorism, this phenomenon reflects the intricate connections between environmental cues, behaviors, and consequences.

    By examining these broader effects of extinction, researchers gain insights into the complex interplay between behavior, cognition, and emotional processing, highlighting the multifaceted nature of learning and adaptation.

    Reduction in Learned Behavior

    One significant effect of extinction is the reduction in learned behaviors, as observed in various domains such as the use of celebrities in commercials or interventions targeting behaviors in individuals with autism spectrum disorders.

    When considering the advertising world, the use of celebrities in commercials can demonstrate the impact of extinction on learned behaviors. For instance, if a popular celebrity endorsement suddenly stops, the associated positive response and purchasing behavior can decline over time due to extinction.

    In the context of autism interventions, extinction plays a crucial role in reshaping challenging behaviors. By systematically reducing reinforcement for negative behaviors, therapists facilitate the extinction of undesirable actions and encourage the learning of more adaptive responses.

    Changes in Emotional Responses

    Extinction can result in changes in emotional responses, a phenomenon often leveraged in interventions like exposure therapy, where innovative approaches such as virtual reality (VR) technology enhance the extinction process.

    When individuals undergo exposure therapy, they are gradually exposed to fear-inducing stimuli in a controlled environment, which helps them confront and ultimately overcome their fears. By repeatedly exposing individuals to these triggers without the associated negative consequences, the brain learns to dissociate the fear response from the stimuli, leading to extinction.

    Integrating VR technology in exposure therapy allows therapists to create highly immersive and realistic simulations of feared situations. This technology offers a safe space for individuals to confront their fears, enabling them to practice coping strategies and gradually decrease their anxiety levels in a controlled setting.

    Real-life Examples of Extinction in Psychology

    Real-life applications of extinction in psychology can be observed in addiction treatment, behavior therapy, and interventions targeting behaviors associated with conditions like alcoholism.

    In addiction treatment, extinction is used to eliminate maladaptive behaviors, such as substance abuse, by removing the reinforcing stimuli that maintain these behaviors. This process involves systematically withholding the reward or reinforcement previously linked to the behavior, leading to a decrease in its occurrence over time.

    Behavior therapy strategies also employ extinction by focusing on reshaping undesirable behaviors. For instance, if a child throws tantrums to receive attention, therapists may recommend ignoring the behavior to extinguish it effectively.

    The application of extinction principles in addressing alcoholism involves identifying and decreasing cues that trigger alcohol consumption, such as specific people, places, or emotions. By eliminating these triggers, individuals can reduce the likelihood of relapse and foster long-term recovery.


    Extinction plays a crucial role in treating phobias through exposure therapy, where therapists guide individuals to confront fear-inducing stimuli gradually, fostering the extinction of conditioned fear responses.

    By systematically exposing individuals to feared situations or objects in a safe environment, exposure therapy helps them to learn that the previously feared stimuli are not as threatening as perceived.

    Therapists play a pivotal role in this process by providing support, guidance, and encouragement throughout the treatment, helping individuals navigate their fears and develop coping mechanisms.

    Extinction involves reshaping the brain’s response to fear, creating new neural pathways that replace old conditioned fear responses, ultimately leading to a reduction in phobic reactions.


    Extinction strategies are employed in addiction interventions to mitigate behaviors like gambling, aiming to disrupt maladaptive associations and promote the extinction of addictive responses through targeted interventions.

    This process involves the identification and modification of key triggers or cues that elicit addictive behaviors, to gradually reduce the conditioned response.

    By employing techniques such as exposure therapy or cue-exposure therapy, individuals are exposed to these triggers in a safe environment, helping them to learn new, healthier responses.

    Through repeated exposure and avoidance of the reinforcing stimuli, the neural pathways associated with addiction are weakened, and over time, the craving response diminishes.

    Learned Behaviors in Relationships

    Extinction principles can be applied to address learned behaviors within relationships, offering a framework for modifying behaviors and fostering positive changes, as seen in interactions between a toddler and a mother.

    When we delve deeper into how these principles work in the context of relationship dynamics, we find that extinction involves the gradual decrease in response to a behavior when it is no longer reinforced. This can be likened to the scenario where a toddler displays disruptive behavior, and the mother consistently responds by giving attention in the form of reprimands or comforting. By changing her response to the behavior, the mother can utilize extinction to shape and guide the child’s actions towards more desirable outcomes.

    Learned Behaviors in Parenting

    Extinction techniques are instrumental in shaping learned behaviors in parenting contexts, mirroring behaviorism principles in scenarios like training a dog where associations and reinforcement play pivotal roles.

    When applying extinction methods in parenting, it involves selectively removing a reinforcer that previously maintained a behavior to diminish its occurrence. In the context of raising children, this could mean ignoring temper tantrums to discourage their frequency. By breaking the association between the unwanted behavior and the reinforcement, parents can effectively guide their child towards more desirable actions.

    This process closely aligns with the core tenets of behaviorism, emphasizing the importance of environmental influences on behavior. Just as a dog learns to sit through consistent rewards and positive reinforcement, children develop habits based on the consequences of their actions.

    How Can Extinction Be Applied in Therapy?

    Extinction is a fundamental component of various therapeutic interventions, particularly in behavior therapy, where strategies like systematic desensitization and exposure therapy leverage extinction principles to promote behavior change and address maladaptive responses.

    Systematic desensitization involves gradually exposing the individual to feared stimuli while promoting relaxation techniques to extinguish the anxiety response associated with the phobia trigger . This process aims to foster a new, relaxed association with the feared situation, ultimately reducing fear and avoidance behaviors over time.

    Similarly, exposure therapy encourages clients to confront their fears directly, immersing them in the anxiety-provoking stimuli until the conditioned fear response is extinguished, allowing for adaptive learning and emotional regulation. By systematically exposing individuals to anxiety-inducing triggers, exposure therapy aims to facilitate extinction of the maladaptive fear response, leading to improved coping strategies and decreased symptom severity.

    Exposure Therapy

    Exposure therapy utilizes extinction principles to help individuals, such as PTSD patients, confront and overcome fear-inducing stimuli, leading to the extinction of conditioned responses and addressing phenomena like extinction bursts in psychology.

    Exposure therapy forms a crucial aspect of cognitive-behavioral treatments, facilitating gradual exposure to anxiety-provoking triggers in a controlled environment, promoting desensitization and fostering emotional regulation.

    By systematically exposing patients to feared situations or objects, therapists aim to reduce maladaptive avoidance behaviors and alleviate distress, enabling them to reframe their cognitive interpretations of perceived threats.

    This approach, tailored to the individual’s needs, assists in rewiring neural pathways, promoting adaptive coping strategies, and normalizing emotional responses.

    Systematic Desensitization

    Systematic desensitization, a therapeutic approach that incorporates gradual exposure to fear-inducing stimuli, leverages extinction principles to promote behavioral change, with innovative applications like virtual reality (VR) technology enhancing the extinction process in educational contexts.

    In systematic desensitization, individuals are exposed to their feared stimuli in a structured manner, starting from less intimidating situations and gradually moving towards more anxiety-provoking scenarios. This exposure helps in reducing the emotional response associated with the fear, ultimately leading to its extinction. By incorporating VR technology into this process, therapists can create realistic and controlled environments to simulate feared situations, making the exposure more immersive and tailored to the individual’s needs.

    In educational settings, the concept of extinction bursts can be exemplified through the application of systematic desensitization. When a fear response initially increases before decreasing during the extinction process, students can experience this phenomenon firsthand, aiding in their understanding of behavior modification and emotional regulation.

    Aversion Therapy

    Aversion therapy employs extinction techniques to discourage unwanted behaviors by associating them with unpleasant stimuli, a practice observed in diverse settings, from wildlife management involving wild water buffalos to everyday scenarios where extinction bursts manifest.

    For instance, in the context of wildlife management, aversion therapy may entail using loud noises or flashing lights to deter wild water buffalos from straying into populated areas, thereby reducing human-wildlife conflicts. These negative associations serve as powerful deterrents, altering the behavior of the animals over time.

    In everyday life, parents may utilize aversion therapy by associating a shrill alarm sound with a child’s undesirable behavior, leading to a decrease in the frequency of that behavior due to the aversive stimulus. This classical conditioning technique highlights the potential effectiveness of aversion therapy in modifying behaviors.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    What is extinction in psychology and how is it defined?

    Extinction in psychology refers to the gradual elimination of a learned behavior due to the lack of reinforcement. This means that when a behavior is no longer rewarded or reinforced, it will eventually cease to occur.

    Can you give an example of extinction in real life?

    Yes, a common example of extinction in real life is when a child throws a temper tantrum to get attention from their parents. If the parents stop giving attention to the child during the tantrum, the behavior of throwing tantrums will eventually stop.

    How does extinction differ from punishment?

    Extinction and punishment are two different concepts in psychology. While extinction refers to the gradual elimination of a behavior due to lack of reinforcement, punishment involves adding a negative consequence to decrease the likelihood of a behavior occurring again.

    Can extinction be used as a form of behavior modification?

    Yes, extinction is often used in behavior modification techniques to eliminate unwanted behaviors. By removing reinforcement for the behavior, the behavior will eventually stop occurring.

    Are there any potential drawbacks to using extinction in psychology?

    Yes, there are potential drawbacks to using extinction as a behavior modification technique. If not done correctly, it can lead to an increase in the unwanted behavior before it ultimately decreases. Also, it may not be effective for all behaviors and can be emotionally difficult for individuals to experience.

    Can extinction be applied to any type of behavior?

    While extinction can be applied to a wide range of behaviors, it is most effective for behaviors that are learned through positive reinforcement. It may not be as effective for behaviors that are reinforced through other means, such as negative reinforcement or punishment.

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