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What is Extinction – Psychology

When it comes to extinction, most people connect it with the complete disappearance of dinosaurs or endangered species such as the wild water buffalos. In psychology, extinction carries a similar meaning to learned behavior.

What is Extinction in Psychology

Extinction in psychology refers to the fading and disappearance of behavior previously learned by association with another event. That means a conditioned response is weakened, and the target behavior eventually stops and becomes extinct. This is usually accomplished by withdrawing the unconditioned stimulus.

5 Examples of Extinction

1. Toddler’s tantrum extinction

A toddler previously learned that throwing a tantrum at the grocery store would get him candies. When Mom stops giving in to those fits, the child throws fewer and fewer tantrums and stops altogether eventually. The learned tantrums have been extinct.

2. Stopping a dog’s jumping

A dog previously learned that jumping up onto its owner will result in receiving a treat. When the owner stops giving treats to the jumping, the dog eventually stops.

3. Reducing attention-seeking behavior in the classroom

A student previously learned that disrupting the class will earn him extra attention from the teacher. When the teacher stops giving negative attention to him, he stops the disruptive behavior.

4. Fear extinction through repeated exposure

Fear conditioning occurs when a neutral stimulus is associated with an aversive stimulus. Exposure therapy exposes an individual to the neutral stimulus without the aversive stimulus to extinct the fear or phobia response.

5. Overcoming post-traumatic stress

Using virtual reality (VR) technology, scientists helped PTSD patients reduce anxiety associated with a neutral location previously fear-conditioned in an accident​1​.

Extinction in Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning occurs when an association is formed between a biologically significant natural stimulus and a neutral stimulus to cause an involuntary response

The natural stimulus is an unconditioned stimulus (UCS) because it doesn’t require any conditioning to cause the reaction. The neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus (CS), and the involuntary response becomes a conditioned response (CR).

The case of Pavlov’s dog is the most famous example. Ivan Pavlov rang a bell every time he fed his dogs. Eventually, they began to salivate every time they heard the sound, whether or not they received food. The natural salivation became a conditioned response.

In classical conditioning, extinction occurs when the conditioned stimulus is applied repeatedly without being paired with the unconditioned stimulus. Over time, the learned behavior occurs less often and eventually stops altogether, and conditioned stimulus returns to neural.

In the example of Pavlov’s dogs, after Pavlov subsequently rang the bell many times without bringing food, the dogs gradually stopped salivating at the sound.

Extinction in Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning refers to associating a natural stimulus (unconditioned stimulus) with reinforcement or punishment (conditioned stimulus) to change a voluntary behavior (conditioned response).

Operant extinction refers to the weakening and eventual stop of the voluntary, conditioned response. 

For example, a child associates the sound of a microwave with her favorite snack, and she rushes into the kitchen. But after dad uses the microwave several times without making the snack, she gradually stops.

The Road to Extinction Can Be Bumpy

The extinction process takes time. And it is not always straightforward or “clean-cut.”

An extinction burst is a temporary increase in frequency, duration, or magnitude of the conditioned behavior during the extinction process. During this period, the extinct behavior repeats more in an attempt to bring back the unconditioned stimulus.

For instance, a parent may try to use differential attention or differential reinforcement – increase attention for good behavior and no attention for bad behavior – to extinct a child’s challenging behavior. However, the child may act up more to try to get back the parents’ attention​2​.

Extinct Behavior May Come Back After Extinction

Extinction doesn’t mean the behavior is gone forever. Spontaneous recovery is the sudden return of the previously extinct behavior.

Extinction burst can also turn into extinction-induced aggression when the individual increases the extinct behavior or uses a different undesired behavior aggressively to try to get back the lost reinforcement​3​.

What Influences Resistance to Extinction

The schedules of reinforcement play a significant role in how resistant a learned behavior is to extinction. A continuous schedule reinforces the conditioned response every time, while a partial schedule only reinforces some times.

Behavior acquired under a partial reinforcement schedule is more resistant to extinction than action acquired under continuous reinforcement. This phenomenon is called the Partial Reinforcement Extinction Effect (PREE)​4​.

One good illustration of the resistance to extinction property is gambling. Gambling addiction, especially slot machine addiction, is notoriously hard to extinct. When gambling, a gambler wins some of the time but not all the time. This partial reinforcement significantly increases the resistance to addiction extinction​5​.

Another factor that influences extinction is context. Context refers to anything in the environment. It could be scenery, location, or the presence of other objects.

Let’s say a target behavior is acquired in context A, and the extinction process occurs in the same context. After extinction completes, meaning an individual doesn’t react to the conditioned stimulus anymore, presenting the conditioned stimulus in another environment may result in the spontaneous recovery of the extinct behavior​6​.

One way to improve the success of extinction is to perform it in multiple contexts, which increases the chance that cues present at extinction will be present in different settings​7​.

Extinction Doesn’t Erase Previous Learning

Because of the possibility of spontaneous recovery and dependence on context, psychologists now believe that extinction is not an unlearning process. Rather, it is a form of new learning called extinction learning​8​.

Instead of erasing previous learning, the individual learns a new association between the conditioned stimulus and the lack of unconditioned stimulus​9​.

Final Words on Extinction in Psychology

Extinction is a complicated process in which behavioral and neurological responses are linked tightly. It is not a process that we have a complete understanding of. Scientists are still uncovering the different components at play.

The difficulty in extinguishing an undesired behavior in their children can be frustrating for parents. But before jumping to the “my child is stubborn” or “I have a strong-willed child” conclusion, apply the extinction process consistently in different settings. Patience and practice can pay off.


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    Maples-Keller JL, Yasinski C, Manjin N, Rothbaum BO. Virtual Reality-Enhanced Extinction of Phobias and Post-Traumatic Stress. Neurotherapeutics. Published online May 16, 2017:554-563. doi:10.1007/s13311-017-0534-y
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    Sajwaj TE, Pinkston S, Cordua G, et al. Adverse effects of differential parental attention1. J Appl Behav Anal. Published online 1973:15-30. doi:10.1901/jaba.1973.6-15
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    Lerman DC, Iwata BA, Wallace MD. SIDE EFFECTS OF EXTINCTION: PREVALENCE OF BURSTING AND AGGRESSION DURING THE TREATMENT OF SELF-INJURIOUS BEHAVIOR. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. Published online March 1999:1-8. doi:10.1901/jaba.1999.32-1
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    Humphreys LG. The effect of random alternation of reinforcement on the acquisition and extinction of conditioned eyelid reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Published online August 1939:141-158. doi:10.1037/h0058138
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    Redish AD, Jensen S, Johnson A, Kurth-Nelson Z. Reconciling reinforcement learning models with behavioral extinction and renewal: Implications for addiction, relapse, and problem gambling. Psychological Review. Published online July 2007:784-805. doi:10.1037/0033-295x.114.3.784
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    Laborda MA, Witnauer JE, Miller RR. Contrasting AAC and ABC renewal: the role of context associations. Learn Behav. Published online December 2, 2010:46-56. doi:10.3758/s13420-010-0007-1
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    Dunsmoor JE, Niv Y, Daw N, Phelps EA. Rethinking Extinction. Neuron. Published online October 2015:47-63. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2015.09.028
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    Goodman J, Packard MG. There Is More Than One Kind of Extinction Learning. Front Syst Neurosci. Published online May 7, 2019. doi:10.3389/fnsys.2019.00016
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    Wellman CL, Moench KM. Preclinical studies of stress, extinction, and prefrontal cortex: intriguing leads and pressing questions. Psychopharmacology. Published online September 17, 2018:59-72. doi:10.1007/s00213-018-5023-4


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