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What Is Extinction in Psychology?

Extinction in psychology refers to weakening or eliminating a learned behavior by removing the reinforcement or consequence that previously followed that behavior. Simply put, extinction involves the reduction or cessation of a behavior when it is no longer reinforced.

Extinction happens when a response that has been previously conditioned is no longer reinforced. In the absence of reinforcement, the response gradually decreases and eventually disappears. Extinguishing a response can happen in both classical conditioning and operant conditioning

To understand how extinction works, it can be helpful to look at how it happens in different types of conditioning and explore examples of how it can be used to help modify behavior.

Extinction in Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning involves the association between a neutral stimulus (CS) and an unconditioned stimulus (UCS). After repeatedly pairing the neutral stimulus with the unconditioned stimulus (which produces an automatic response), presenting the previously neutral stimulus will produce a conditioned response (CR). At this point, the neutral stimulus becomes known as a conditioned stimulus.

In classical conditioning, extinction refers to the weakening or elimination of a conditioned response (CR) by repeatedly presenting the conditioned stimulus (CS) without the unconditioned stimulus (UCS) that previously accompanied it. 

While the exact process can vary from one situation to the next, here is how extinction typically happens in classical conditioning:

Initial Conditioning

During the initial phase of classical conditioning, an unconditioned stimulus (UCS) naturally produces an unconditioned response (UR). Through repeated pairings of a neutral stimulus (CS) with the unconditioned stimulus, the neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus, and the response to it becomes a conditioned response.

Conditioned Response Formation

Over time, the conditioned stimulus (CS) alone starts to evoke the conditioned response (CR) due to the association formed during conditioning.

Extinction Phase

Extinction in classical conditioning involves presenting the conditioned stimulus (CS) without the unconditioned stimulus (UCS). As a result, the conditioned stimulus no longer predicts the occurrence of the unconditioned stimulus. The unpairing of these CS and the USC erodes the association between the two.

Decrease in Conditioned Response

After repeated presentations of the CS without the US, the strength of the conditioned response (CR) gradually decreases. This is because the individual learns that the presence of the conditioned stimulus no longer indicates that the associated event will occur.

Extinction in Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning involves the association between a behavior and its consequences. When desired consequences follow a behavior, the behavior increases. When undesirable consequences follow, the behavior decreases.

Extinction can also be used in operant conditioning to reduce or eliminate a learned behavior by withholding the reinforcement that previously followed that behavior. 

The extinction process in operant conditioning usually happens in the following manner:

Initial Learning

First, the behavior is learned through reinforcement. Reinforcement can be positive (adding something desirable) or negative (removing something aversive). The effect of reinforcement is that it increases the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated.

Formation of the Learned Response

With repeated pairings, the behaviors become associated with its consequences. If the behavior is followed by reinforcement, it is more likely to be repeated in the future.

Extinction Phase

To extinguish a behavior that has been operationally conditioned, reinforcement must be withheld after the behavior occurs. As a result, engaging in the behavior no longer leads to the desired outcome or consequence.

Without reinforcement, the behavior tends to decrease in frequency and strength. The individual learns that the behavior is no longer effective in producing the desired outcome.

If reinforcement no longer occurs, the behavior will eventually decrease and eventually diminish.

Examples of Extinction in Psychology

Examining how extinction often happens in real-world and therapeutic settings can be helpful.

Animal Training

Imagine that you trained your dog to sit every time they hear the sound of a clicker. Previously, sitting down when they heard the sound resulted in a reward such as a treat or affectionate pat on the head. If you suddenly stop reinforcing the behavior, the dog will eventually stop sitting when they hear the clicker. The response becomes extinct once the dog learns that the behavior no longer leads to reinforcement.

Child Behavior

Another example would be removing reinforcement when a child throws tantrums. Previously, the child may have learned that they received some type of reinforcement (such as a treat or attention) whenever they acted out. If parents and caregivers ignore the tantrum and withhold reinforcement, the child will eventually learn that this behavior is no longer an effective strategy. The tantrums then gradually decrease until they become extinct.

Factors That Influence the Extinction Process

Extinction in classical and operant conditioning can be affected by various factors. To develop an effective plan to extinguish a behavior, it is important to understand how some of these might influence the process.


It is essential to be consistent in withholding the presentation of the conditioned stimulus in classical conditioning and reinforcement in operant conditioning.

Being inconsistent, such as occasionally presenting the conditioned stimulus or sometimes providing reinforcement, can interfere with the extinction process and cause it to happen much more slowly.

Strength of Initial Learning

Responses that have been strongly conditioned will take longer to become extinct. The strength of learning might be affected by things like motivation and type of reinforcement.

Reinforcement Schedule

In operant conditioning, the reinforcement schedule initially used to establish the response can sometimes interfere with extinction. For example, behaviors that were conditioned using some type of partial reinforcement schedule (particularly a variable ratio or variable interval schedule) will be much more resistant to extinction.


If the individual is highly motivated to keep pursuing potential reinforcement, it will be much more difficult to extinguish the response.

Other Sources of Reinforcement

Extinction can be complicated if there are other sources of reinforcement also at work. While the behavior may have been initially established by a specific conditioned stimulus or reinforcer, other factors may have since come into play. For example, a child may keep having tantrums even if reinforcement has been withdrawn if peers or siblings are reinforcing them.

When Extinct Behaviors Suddenly Return

Extinction is not always a smooth, continuous process. In some instances, the behavior may briefly increase or suddenly reappear.

Extinction Burst

It’s important to note that during the extinction process, there may be an initial increase in the response, known as an extinction burst. This burst is a temporary and often intensified expression of the conditioned response before it starts to decrease. Through the continued presentation of the CS without the US, the association weakens, and the conditioned response diminishes over time.

An extinction burst can also occur in operant conditioning. Before the behavior completely disappears, there may be an initial increase in the behavior’s intensity. The behavior may occur more frequently as the individual tries to obtain some type of reinforcement for actions that previously led to a desirable outcome.

Spontaneous Recovery

Sometimes spontaneous recovery can occur following a period of extinction. Spontaneous recovery involves the sudden, spontaneous reemergence of a previously extinct behavior. In other works, even after extinction has occur, the behavior suddenly reappears when a conditioned stimluus or behavior is presented. 

The recovered response is usually only temporary. In the absence of further association or reinforcement, however, the recovered behavior usually rapidly disappears.

What spontaneous recovery demonstrates is that things that have been learned do not disappear just because they are extinct. The association is still there, it is just much weaker and the lack of association and reinforcement reduces the motivation to display such learning.

What Are Some Uses for Extinction?

Understanding extinction is important because it can help demonstrate how learned associations can be weakened or eliminated when a behavior no longer predicts a certain outcome.

Extinction can be used as a behavior modification tool for a number of conditions and behaviors. Examples include:

  • Unwanted behaviors
  • Parenting
  • Substance use treatment
  • Classroom management
  • Animal training
  • Repetitive or compulsive behaviors
  • Phobia treatment
  • Eliminating bad habits

In each application, the removal of the conditioned stimulus or reinforcer helps reduce the behaviors associated with them. By consistently withholding reinforcement, the association will gradually decrease and eventually disappear.

It’s important to note that extinction in operant conditioning does not involve punishment; rather, it involves the removal of reinforcement.

Extinction is a key concept in behavior modification and is used to address and reduce undesired behaviors by eliminating the reinforcing consequences associated with those behaviors.

Research suggests that extinction is a form of inhibitory learning. In other words, people learn to inhibit the response because it does not produce the desired results.

Key Points to Remember About Extinction

  • Extinction is a behavioral modification tool that can be used to reduce or eliminate a learned behavior by removing the reinforcement or consequences that were previously associated with that behavior.
  • It applies to both classical and operant conditioning, involving the weakening of conditioned responses or behaviors through the absence of expected stimuli or reinforcement.
  • Consistency in the application of extinction, the initial strength of the learned behavior, and the occurrence of extinction bursts are crucial factors influencing the effectiveness of the process.
  • Spontaneous recovery is a phenomenon where a previously extinguished response may temporarily re-emerge after a period of rest or delay without reinforcement.


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