What Is Extinction? Psychology And Conditioning

By Julia Thomas|Updated March 29, 2022

Extinction is a common term that manypeople associate with the disappearance of dinosaurs or endangered species. In that sense, it means that those creatures die off completely. Although they leave behind traces of their prior existence, they no longer live and breathe. When it comes to the word extinction, psychology has a different but similar meaning. It's related to classical and operant conditioning theories. So, what does extinction mean in psychology? Here's a brief introduction to conditioning, extinction, and how you can use themto improve your mental health.

Two Conditioning Theories

The two theories of conditioning are classical conditioning, also called Pavlovian theory, and operant conditioning. Both types are learning processes that can occur either naturally or intentionally. The two types of conditioning have differences.

Classical Conditioning

Ivan Pavlov, a Russian psychologist in the late 1800s and early 1900s, studied what he called classical conditioning. Most famously, he studied how dogs learned to associate the sound of a ringing bell with food. When the dogs heard the bell, they salivated, knowing that the food would soon arrive.

There are two key things to remember about classical conditioning. First, it involves the pairing of a stimulus and an involuntary response. That is, when the dogs smelled the food, they had a natural, involuntary response of salivating. When the neutral stimulus of the ringing bell was added that involuntary response came with the neutral stimulus, even if the food didn't come.

Second, classical conditioning pairs two cues or stimuli. Voluntary behavior has nothing to do with the conditioning process, although certain behaviors may come with it. For example, you might have a frightening experience in a specific place. You become conditioned to have a physical fear reaction. Then, whenever you're in that place, you have that same response, even if nothing frightening happens there again. The fear is what you've learned. However, you might behave in certain ways because of your involuntary responses like rapid heartbeat and difficulty breathing. You might run from the place, for instance.

Classical Conditioning And Extinction

Another part of Pavlov's experiments was to stop bringing the food after ringing the bell. Eventually, the dogs stopped associating the ringing bell with food. That response of salivating no longer followed the stimulus of the ringing bell. Pavlov called this extinction because the association was no longer present.

The same thing can occurwithpeople. In the example of learning to have a fear reaction where a distressing thing has occurred, extinction can happen if you go to that place many times and nothing bad ever happens again. That involuntary reaction to the setting becomes extinct, and you can go there without having any physical reaction to it.

Operant Conditioning

B.F. Skinner, an American psychologist who lived from 1904 to 1990, is considered the father of operant conditioning. His experiments involved putting a rodent in a "Skinner box," a small cage with a bar on one wall that could be pushed to receive a food pellet. When the rodent discovered that the bar produced a reward, it would go back and push it again and again. In short, it had learned that the voluntary behavior of pushing the bar brought the reward of food. So, the behavior is paired with a response in operant conditioning. And what is learned is voluntary behavior.

Extinction In Operant Conditioning

Learn More About How Therapy Can Help You With Extinction

In operant conditioning, a behavior eventually becomes extinct if the reward no longer follows the behavior. For example, say you take your child with you to the store. They ask for a toy, but you say no. They cry and throw a fit, and you give in and buy them the toy. The next time you take them to the store, they immediately start having a tantrum until you buy them a toy. They've learned through operant conditioning that misbehaving this way brings them the reward of a toy.

If you want this pattern to end, you need to stop buying the toy, no matter how badly the child behaves. Eventually, if the child never gets the toy when they throw a fit, they will stop doing it. At that point, the learned behavioral response will be extinct.

Is Extinction The Same As Unlearning?

Experts have varying opinions on exactly what extinction is. Some believe it is a type of unlearning. If this view is correct, you simply stop reacting to the trigger when it no longer brings the same result. It isn't that you've lost the memory of when you did that. It's just that it no longer affects you the same way. You unlearn that stimulus-response association.

Other psychologists believe that extinction involves learning something new. So, in the case of the child crying to get a toy, it isn't that the child has unlearned that crying can bring a toy. Instead, they've learned a new fact. That is, they've learned a new association –that inhibiting their excitement brings better results.

How Can You Bring About Extinction?

There may be many associations in your life or in your children's lives that you would prefer to eliminate. Here are some examples:

  • You're trying to quit smoking, but you associate dinner with an after-dinner cigarette.
  • Your child misbehaves because they associate it with getting more attention.
  • You or your child have a physical fear reaction whenever you're required to take a test.

If there's an association you want to extinguish, you can use psychology to change the response to the trigger. You may be able to do this on your own, or you may need help from a mental health professional. Either way, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Consistency Is Crucial

Have you ever noticed that when people go to a casino, they often increase their betting when they're losing more than they're winning? The reward is still there, but it's inconsistent. Through decades of studying this inconsistent type of reward, scientists have found that inconsistent rewards lead to increased attempts to get the rewards. So, reducing the stimulus may just make things worse. To extinguish the behavior or response, you need to eliminate the reward.

An Extinction Burst Might Come First

Extinction doesn't typically happen quickly. Often, there's what psychologists call an extinction burstfirst. What happens is that when you no longer get the reward, you're probably going to try even harder to get it. When the child doesn't get the toy, they may cry harder and beg louder. The unwanted behavior increases before it becomes extinct. However, if you're aware that this will happen, you can patiently avoid giving the reward until extinction is complete.

The Response May Change With No Better Result

Another challengeyou may encounter when trying to extinguish a behavior is that you or your child might try to get the reward in different ways that are equally troublesome. For example, if crying doesn't bring the child the reward of the toy, they might engage in other bad behaviors. They might throw themselves on the floor, kick people walking by, or start pulling items off the store shelves. This is called extinction-induced variability. The good news is that in the process of trying different ways of getting the toy, they may stumble onto good behaviors that get them what they want. You can then reinforce those good behaviors to produce an even better result.

The Brain And Extinction

Brainbiology is an important factor in psychological extinction, as well. Here are some examples of how the brain's chemistry and structure play into the learning and unlearning processes.

  • The neurotransmitter glutamate plays a role in the extinction of stimulus-response in an environment where someone addicted to cocaine has used their drug.
  • The neurotransmitter dopamine aids in extinguishing conditioned fear responses or drug-related responses.
  • The brain's infralimbic cortex is key to extinguishing behaviors based on learned fear or reward.
  • The amygdala plays a part in extinguishing fear-related responses.

What To Do If You Need Help

If you're trying to accomplish extinction, the psychology methods you need to use may seem too hard to understand completely or implement correctly on your own. It may involve many complex procedures that can't be fully explained in a simple introductory article. Beyond that, your situation is unique, so you may need some personalized guidance to help you manage your symptoms. The good news is that there is help for you.

Learn More About How Therapy Can Help You With Extinction

Whether it's your child's behaviors, an unwanted physical reaction, or bad habits that you want to change, the best way to use extinction is by working with a mental health professional. You can talk to a therapist in your local area to get advice on how to eliminate the associations that are causing you trouble.

On the other hand, there may not be adequate help in your area. Or, you may have trouble arranging transportation. Maybe you just want a more convenient way to get the help you need. In these cases, you might prefer to reach out to a mental health counselor online. Online therapy is growing in popularity, and research indicates it is as effective as face-to-face counseling. This study from the Berkeley Well-Being Institute found that digital therapy reduced depression symptoms in 70% of participants, and 94% of participants preferred BetterHelp to traditional in-person counseling.

BetterHelp allows you access to trained professionals right from the comfort of your home, day or night. You can be in contact with them on a more regular basis than in a formal office setting, which can be a comfort during the tough times when you may need to speak with a trusted professional. Consider the following reviews of BetterHelp therapists below, from people experiencing similar issues.

“Sunny has been a real godsend for me during these hectic and unstable times. With Sunny's advice and guidance, I have been able to pull myself out of a deep anxiety and just generally navigate life far better than I have ever before. 10/10 Sunny is the man!”

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No matter which option you choose, getting help can help you improve your life dramatically.

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