What Is Extinction? Behavior Modification For Reducing Problematic Behaviors

By Michael Puskar

Updated August 30, 2019

Reviewer Lauren Guilbeault

Extinction, in psychology, has a different meaning than the traditional sense of the word. However, to an extent, they are also similar in some ways. In this article, you will learn about extinction as it relates to behavior, especially when making changes to one's thoughts and feelings.

Extinction And Psychology

Extinction is formally defined as "the omission of previously delivered unconditioned stimuli or reinforcers," but it can also describe the "absence of a contingency between response and reinforcer." [1] Essentially, this means that learned behaviors will gradually disappear if they are not reinforced.

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For example, if a mother's child exhibits bad behavior, such as throwing a tantrum because he does not want to go to school and she provides him with toys and sweets in an effort to pacify him or her, she is reinforcing poor behavior. The child has learned that misbehaving will lead to rewards, and thus, will continue to do so in order to get what he or she wants.

Now, if the mother decides to stop reinforcing it by refusing to give out any rewards, her child will eventually stop acting up, because he or she will no longer associate it with a positive outcome.

This is extinction, and it relates heavily to operant conditioning, a theory developed by Dr. Ivan Pavlov, a significant figure in the school of behavioralism, or behavioral psychology along with the likes of John B. Watson and B. F. Skinner.

Because extinction works to make specific behaviors disappear, this is where it does have similarities with the general definition of the word. However, where it is different is that extinction in psychology is not the erasure of behavior, which will be discussed in the next section. [2]

Extinction Vs. Erasure

Unlike extinction in biology, which refers to the eradication of a species, such as what happened with the dinosaurs millions of years ago, psychology's definition of extinction does not mean that behaviors will be entirely removed from existence.

In fact, it is possible for someone to "relapse" back into old behaviors through "spontaneous recovery, renewal, reinstatement, rapid reacquisition, and resurgence." This is because the original learning is still present in an organism's long-term memory, and if enough time passes after extinction, responding can eventually return, and this refers to spontaneous recovery. [2]

Spontaneous recovery is a term coined by Pavlov that means that if time is able to elapse after extinction, it can also return.

Renewal refers to the return of extinguished responding returns when the conditioned stimulus is removed from the extinction context and tested in another one. On the other hand, the event of being presented with an unconditioned stimulus once again after extinction has passed is reinstatement and is this one of the easiest ways old behaviors can return.

Rapid reacquisition means that responding can return to the conditioned stimulus quickly if conditioned stimulus and unconditioned stimulus pairings are resumed after the extinction. [2]

Lastly, the term resurgence is defined as "the reappearance of previously reinforced and then extinguished responses during a period of extinction for a subsequently learned response." [3]

An example of this is, according to the American Psychological Association, if a rat is presented with two levers, pressing on Lever A first will be reinforced then later subjected to extinction which will lead to reinforcement of pressing Lever B.

Eventually, pressing A will stop entirely, and pressing on B will happen. However, extinction will be arranged for Lever B, which will cause a decline in pressing B, but this will then cause an increase, or resurgence, for pressing A. [3]

Therefore, through each of these mechanisms, conditioned responses can return after extinction. If a specific behavior was once learned before, it could be relearned again if certain circumstances are provided.

Extinction As A Tool For Changing Maladaptive Behaviors

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Earlier in this article, the scenario with a mother and her child was an example of extinction, and strategies like these can be put into practice for behavioral changes. These are called extinction procedures, and if put into practice consistently, they can be highly successful.

Extinction procedures are deliberate and are typically part of a therapy program called Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), which is based on the science of behavior and learning, which was developed by Pavlov and other behavioral psychologists.

In order for extinction to occur, target behaviors need to be identified, and new ones need to be established, and procedures typically take on one of three different forms based on [4]:

  • Negative Reinforcement
  • Positive Reinforcement
  • Automatic Reinforcement

The example mentioned earlier is a form of extinction behavior based on negative reinforcement, because instead of rewarding her child for acting up, she lets him or her continue to do so and insists that he or she goes to school whether they like it or not, because eventually, the tantrums will lead to nowhere due to the lack of reinforcement. Because of this, it is sometimes referred to as escape extinction.

However, positive reinforcement is one of the primary ways people use extinction procedures because it allows changing negative, maladaptive behaviors into ones that are positive and adaptive. [5]

Now, if the mother's goal is to have the child have better manners and be willing to help out around the house with chores, she will reward these behaviors, and over time, these new behaviors will be repeated because they are positively reinforced through rewards. Eventually, the tantrums will be phased out in favor of productive actions.

Automatic reinforcement, also known as sensory extinction, is slightly more straightforward but can be used in certain scenarios. For instance, if someone is fascinated by the feel and sound of clicking a pen, the act of doing so is stimulating and a form of automatic reinforcement. However, if a parent were to take these pens away and replace them with ones that do not click, the action will inevitably disappear because they can no longer perform that behavior. [4]

ABA and its extinction techniques are flexible and can be applied to just about any behaviors. By using them, not only can a person reduce problem behaviors and replace them with productive ones such as various skills, like communication, social, and focus skills, which can improve outcomes in everyday life. [5]

The Side-Effects Of Extinction

Using extinction is an excellent way to manipulate behavior change. However, it does come with adverse effects, especially in the initial stages of the process.

Some of the most common side effects of extinction are anger, frustration, and sometimes even depression. When a particular behavior stops being reinforced, it will cause some backlash in the beginning, and it usually manifests in this manner.

When a procedure is introduced, there will be an increase in adverse behavior. For example, screaming and tantrums may become louder, things might get destroyed. This initial phase of heightened negative reaction is known as an extinction burst. [4]

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For people who are brand new to using extinction techniques, like parents, this is often worrisome, and it makes them wonder if they are doing the right thing, or the negative behaviors become too intense, and they stop trying to fix them.

However, it is crucial that anyone who uses extinction therapy to stick with the plan regardless of how poorly a person reacts or behaves, aside from specific circumstances, like violence and self-injury. Nonetheless, If someone goes back and continues to reinforce maladaptive behaviors, extinction cannot occur and the target will not learn.

Additionally, once extinction is successful, it is also essential to be aware that old behaviors can return long after the process has ended. This goes back to how extinction does not mean erasure, and if a specific behavior was learned once before, it can be relearned again.


Using extinction behavior to help bring about change despite the side-effects can be done without professional assistance in many cases, but others find the help of a therapist useful and might decide to meet with one that specializes in Applied Behavior Analysis.

A therapist can especially be useful in helping to treat problem behaviors in those with mental conditions such as autism and Down syndrome, and more. ABA is not a typical form of psychotherapy, and it is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but with some trial and error and data collection, behavioral change can occur.

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At BetterHelp, online therapists are available who specialize in modifying problematic behaviors in people of all ages, and can give you the skills and strategies you need to implement extinction procedures successfully. For instance, if extinction burst is present or is expected to happen, a therapist can provide advice on how to pass through this phase.

Nonetheless, extinction can be applied just about any type of behavior, and hopefully, this article has taught you what it entails. Many people are unfamiliar with the psychological meaning of extinction or even operant conditioning; however, these concepts have been put into practice for generations and will continue to be used to modify behaviors.


  1. Lattal, K. M., & Lattal, K. A. (2012). Facets of Pavlovian and operant extinction. Behavioural Processes, 90(1), 1-8. doi:10.1016/j.beproc.2012.03.009
  2. Todd, T. P., Vurbic, D., & Bouton, M. E. (2014). Behavioral and neurobiological mechanisms of extinction in Pavlovian and instrumental learning. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 108, 52-64. doi:10.1016/j.nlm.2013.08.012
  3. American Psychiatric Association. (n.d.). Resurgence. Retrieved July 6, 2019, from http://dictionary.apa.org/resurgence
  4. Special Learning, Inc. (n.d.). Using Extinction to Reduce Problem Behavior. Retrieved July 6, 2019, from https://www.special-learning.com/article/extinction
  5. Autism Speaks. (n.d.). Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Retrieved July 6, 2019, from https://www.autismspeaks.org/applied-behavior-analysis-aba-0

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