What is Spontaneous Recovery in Psychology?
Spontaneous recovery in psychology refers to the unexpected reemergence of a previously extinct behavior or response. It can occur in both classical and operant conditioning. After a behavior has been extinguished, spontaneous recovery refers to the sudden reappearance of that behavior following a period of rest or time without reinforcement.
In classical conditioning, spontaneous recovery occurs when a conditioned response returns after the conditioned stimulus is presented again, even without the presence of the unconditioned stimulus. This phenomenon suggests that the association between the conditioned stimulus and the unconditioned stimulus is not completely erased during extinction.
In operant conditioning, spontaneous recovery happens when a behavior that was previously extinguished spontaneously resurfaces in the absence of reinforcement. It indicates that the learned behavior, although weakened during extinction, is not entirely forgotten.
Spontaneous recovery is a significant concept in learning as it highlights the potential for previously learned behaviors to reemerge, even after they have seemingly disappeared. It reminds us that the process of unlearning and extinguishing a behavior is not always permanent and that the original association can sometimes resurface unexpectedly.
Spontaneous Recovery in Classical Conditioning
Classical conditioning is a type of learning where an association is formed between a neutral stimulus and a biologically significant stimulus, leading to a learned response. It involves pairing the neutral stimulus (such as a sound or a smell) with an unconditioned stimulus (like food) that naturally elicits a response (such as salivation).
Spontaneous recovery in classical conditioning refers to the unexpected reappearance of a previously extinct conditioned response after a period of rest or time without reinforcement. Even though the behavior seemed to have vanished during extinction, it can resurface momentarily when the conditioned stimulus is presented again.
For example, imagine a dog that has been trained to associate a bell sound with receiving food and salivates in response to the sound. After the bell is repeatedly presented without food (extinction), the salivation response disappears. However, after a break, if the bell is rung again, the dog may momentarily salivate, exhibiting spontaneous recovery.
Spontaneous Recovery in Operant Conditioning
Operant conditioning is a type of learning where behaviors are shaped by consequences. It involves the use of reinforcement and punishment to strengthen or weaken behaviors. In operant conditioning, behaviors that are followed by rewards are more likely to be repeated, while behaviors that are followed by punishments are less likely to occur again.
Spontaneous recovery in operant conditioning refers to the unexpected reappearance of behavior that was previously extinguished, even in the absence of reinforcement. After a behavior has been extinguished, there might be a temporary resurgence of that behavior without any apparent reason.
For instance, imagine a child who used to throw tantrums to get attention. Through consistent non-reinforcement of tantrums, the behavior was extinguished. However, after a break, the child might exhibit a spontaneous recovery by briefly engaging in tantrum behavior, seeking attention.
Spontaneous recovery in operant conditioning suggests that even when a behavior appears to be extinct, it can reemerge temporarily. This phenomenon highlights the complexity of behavior and the potential for previous behaviors to resurface.
Examples of Spontaneous Recovery
Spontaneous recovery is a fascinating phenomenon that can be observed in both classical and operant conditioning. Here are four examples that illustrate spontaneous recovery:
Classical Conditioning Example (1):
A person has a fear of dogs due to a childhood incident. Through systematic desensitization, they gradually expose themselves to friendly dogs until their fear subsides. After a period without encountering dogs, they unexpectedly come across a large, unfamiliar dog. Suddenly, their fear resurfaces momentarily, showcasing spontaneous recovery of the fear response.
Operant Conditioning Example (1):
Imagine a student who used to procrastinate when studying. Through self-discipline and time-management techniques, they overcome their procrastination habit and become more diligent.
However, after a break from their routine, they find themselves falling back into old patterns of procrastination. This demonstrates the spontaneous recovery of the previously extinguished behavior.
Classical Conditioning Example (2):
Suppose a person has successfully overcome their aversion to public speaking through exposure therapy. They gain confidence and deliver presentations without anxiety.
But, after a break from public speaking engagements, they are asked to speak in front of a large audience, and their anxiety resurfaces unexpectedly. This exemplifies the spontaneous recovery of the fear response in a specific context.
Operant Conditioning Example (2):
Consider a child who used to throw tantrums to get attention from their parents. Through consistent non-reinforcement of tantrums, the behavior diminishes. However, after a period of parental stress or disruption in their routine, the child spontaneously reverts to throwing tantrums as a means of seeking attention.
Extinction Vs. Spontaneous Recovery
Extinction and spontaneous recovery are both concepts in psychology that relate to the weakening and reappearance of learned behaviors, but they differ in their nature and underlying mechanisms.
Extinction refers to the gradual decrease and eventual disappearance of learned behavior when the conditioned stimulus is repeatedly presented without the unconditioned stimulus or reinforcement. It involves unlearning the association between the stimuli. Extinction works by breaking the connection between the conditioned stimulus and the conditioned response, resulting in a reduction in the occurrence of the behavior.
On the other hand, spontaneous recovery refers to the sudden reappearance of an extinguished behavior or response after a period of rest or time without reinforcement. It is the temporary recovery of the previously extinct behavior. Spontaneous recovery occurs because the original learning is not completely erased during extinction. It reflects the reactivation of the original association between the stimuli, leading to the reappearance of the behavior, albeit temporarily.
Overall, extinction involves the gradual disappearance of behavior through repeated exposure without reinforcement, while spontaneous recovery refers to the temporary reappearance of an extinguished behavior after a rest period. Extinction focuses on weakening the behavior, while spontaneous recovery highlights the persistence of the original association despite extinction.
Read Next: Branches of Psychology
- Spontaneous recovery. APA Dictionary of Psychology.
- Quirk GJ. Memory for Extinction of Conditioned Fear Is Long-lasting and Persists Following Spontaneous Recovery. Learning & Memory. November 2002:402-407. doi:10.1101/lm.49602
- Rehman I, Mahabadi N, Rehman CI. Classical Conditioning. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing;2020.