What is Extinction in Psychology? Definition, Factors Affecting, and Examples

What is Extinction in Psychology?

Extinction in psychology refers to the gradual disappearance of learned behavior. It occurs when a previously conditioned response no longer occurs in the presence of a conditioned stimulus. Extinction can be observed in both classical and operant conditioning.

In classical conditioning, extinction happens when a conditioned stimulus is repeatedly presented without being followed by an unconditioned stimulus. This causes the conditioned response to weaken and eventually cease. For example, if a dog was conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell but the bell is repeatedly presented without food, the salivation response will gradually disappear.

In operant conditioning, extinction occurs when a previously reinforced behavior no longer receives reinforcement or reward. When a behavior is no longer followed by a positive outcome, the frequency of that behavior decreases over time. For instance, if a rat that was previously rewarded with food for pressing a lever suddenly receives no food when pressing the lever, it will eventually stop pressing the lever altogether.

Extinction is an important concept in psychology as it helps us understand how learned behaviors can be weakened and eventually eliminated. By recognizing and applying principles of extinction, individuals can work towards replacing undesired behaviors with more desirable ones, leading to personal growth and positive change.

Extinction in Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning is a type of learning where an association is formed between a neutral stimulus and a biologically significant stimulus to elicit a response.

For example, if a bell (neutral stimulus) is repeatedly paired with food (biologically significant stimulus) and the bell elicits a salivation response (involuntary response), eventually the bell alone will trigger salivation.

Extinction in classical conditioning occurs when the conditioned response gradually disappears. This happens when the conditioned stimulus (bell) is presented repeatedly without being followed by the unconditioned stimulus (food).

For instance, if the bell is repeatedly rung without providing food, the salivation response to the bell will weaken and eventually cease altogether.

Extinction in Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is a type of learning where behaviors are strengthened or weakened based on the consequences they produce. It involves the use of rewards or punishments to shape behavior.

For example, if a child receives praise and a treat (reward) for completing their homework (behavior), they are more likely to continue doing their homework in the future.

Extinction in operant conditioning occurs when a previously reinforced behavior no longer receives reinforcement, leading to a decrease in that behavior.

For instance, if a child who used to receive praise and treats for completing homework no longer receives any rewards, they may gradually stop doing their homework altogether.

Factors Affecting Extinction

The followings are some of the major factors that affect extinction in psychology.

Timing and Intensity of Reinforcement

The timing and intensity of reinforcement play a crucial role in the extinction process. If the reinforcement is consistently delayed or weak, the association between the stimulus and the response becomes weaker, making extinction more difficult.

On the other hand, if the reinforcement is immediate and strong, the learned behavior is more resistant to extinction.

Related: Conditioned Response in Classical Conditioning: Definition and Examples

Context and Environment

The context and environment in which the extinction occurs can influence the process. If the individual is exposed to different environments or contexts, it may be easier for the learned behavior to extinguish in one setting but persist in another. The specific cues and stimuli present in the environment can either facilitate or hinder the extinction process.

Spontaneous Recovery

Even after a behavior has been extinguished, there is a possibility of spontaneous recovery. Spontaneous recovery refers to the reappearance of the extinguished behavior after a period of time without reinforcement.

This suggests that extinction is not always permanent, and the behavior may resurface under certain conditions.

Consistency and Persistence

Consistency in the application of extinction procedures is essential for successful extinction. If the conditioned stimulus is occasionally reinforced or the behavior is inconsistently ignored, it can lead to the persistence of the learned behavior.

Consistent and persistent application of extinction is necessary to ensure the weakening and eventual disappearance of the conditioned response.

Examples of Extinction

Examples of extinction in psychology demonstrate how learned behaviors can weaken and eventually disappear over time. Here are five examples:

Also Read: Unconditioned Response in Classical Conditioning: Definition and Examples

Overcoming Trauma

After a traumatic car accident, Nate initially felt anxious when approaching the accident intersection. However, as he repeatedly passed through without negative consequences, his anxiety gradually extinguished. This showcases how repeated exposure to the fear-inducing stimulus can lead to its eventual extinction.

Eliminating Bad Habits

John used to bite his nails when nervous. By consciously stopping this behavior and replacing it with a healthier alternative, he no longer feels the urge to bite his nails. This highlights how intentional behavior modification can lead to the extinction of undesirable habits.

Breaking Addiction Patterns

Lisa used to smoke cigarettes when stressed. By quitting and adopting alternative coping mechanisms, she successfully extinguished her urge to smoke. This exemplifies how replacing an addictive behavior with healthier alternatives can lead to its extinction.

Reducing Aggression

Jack used to display aggressive behavior when frustrated. However, when consistently met with calm responses or being ignored instead of reactions, he no longer resorts to aggression. This demonstrates how responding differently to aggressive behavior can extinguish it by replacing it with more appropriate responses.

Overcoming Fear of Place

Antonio experienced queasiness when seeing the top floor of a construction site. As he transitioned to a management role on the ground, the fear gradually disappeared. This illustrates how changes in circumstances or perspectives can lead to the extinction of fears associated with specific places.

Read Next: Unconditioned Stimulus in Classical Conditioning: Definition and Examples


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