Exploring Extinction Psychology

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams, LPC, CCTP
Updated August 7, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Extinction is a term you may associate with the disappearance of dinosaurs or endangered species. In that sense, it means those creatures no longer exist as a species. Although they may leave behind traces of their prior existence, they no longer live on Earth.  

The word extinction in psychology has a different but similar meaning. In psychology extinction refers to behavior extinction related to classical and operant conditioning theories. Understanding this kind of psychology may help you understand common topics like parenting, boundaries, and increasing healthy behaviors in your life.

Learn About Extinction In Psychology

The Conditioning Theories

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

Classical Conditioning

Ivan Pavlov, a Russian psychologist in the late 1800s and early 1900s, studied 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 the food would soon arrive.

Classical conditioning involves the pairing of a stimulus and an involuntary response. For example, when the dogs in Pavlov's experiment smelled the food, they had a natural, involuntary salivating response. We would call the smell of the food an unconditioned stimulus, as a dog would naturally respond with salivating with no conditioning. When the neutral stimulus of the ringing bell was added to feeding time, that involuntary response paired with the neutral stimulus, even when the food didn't come. This is conditioned behavior. The bell was then considered a conditioned stimulus, rather than a neutral stimulus since it facilitated an involuntary response (now a conditioned response). Classical conditioning also pairs two cues or stimuli. Voluntary behavior may have nothing to do with the classical conditioning process, although certain behaviors can come with it. 

For example, you might have a frightening experience in a specific place. A conditioned stimulus can result in a physical fear reaction. In the future, if you visit that location again, you may have the same fear response, even if nothing frightening happens. However, you might experience involuntary responses, like a rapid heartbeat or difficulty breathing. These responses can signify a fight-or-flight reaction. In severe cases, repeated memories of an event or feeling as though you are reliving a trauma can be signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Classical Conditioning And Extinction

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

Extinction, in this sense, can also occur with people. In the example of learning a fear reaction in a place where a distressing event has occurred, extinction may happen if you practice exposure to the location and learn that you are safe. The involuntary reaction to the setting may become extinct, and you might go there without having any physical or emotional reaction.

Operant Conditioning

B.F. Skinner, an American psychologist who lived from 1904 to 1990, is often 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, the rodent had learned that the voluntary behavior of pushing the bar brought the reward of food. In operant conditioning, the behavior is paired with a response. And what is learned is voluntary behavior, not involuntary. 


Extinction In Operant Conditioning

In operant conditioning, a behavior may become extinct if the reward no longer follows the behavior. For example, you might take your child to the store. They may ask for a toy, but you say no. They could respond to this by crying and throwing themselves on the floor. If you respond to this behavior by buying the toy, they may start to cry and throw themselves on the floor the next time you're in the store to gain a toy. They might have learned through operant conditioning that misbehaving this way may bring rewards. 

According to operant conditioning, if you want this voluntary behavior pattern to end, you may need to stop buying the toy, no matter how a child behaves. This response can influence extinction of the target behavior. You might also reward your child for healthy behaviors by only buying toys on special occasions or when they act healthily. After some time, through continuous reinforcement, the child may learn that positive behaviors sometimes warrant healthy rewards and undesired behaviors do not. At that point, the learned behavioral response through operant conditioning could be nullified. This is operant extinction.

How Can You Bring About Extinction?

There could be many associations in your life that you may prefer to eliminate, including the following: 

  • 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 when taking a test
  • You want to stop feeling defensive when a partner reminds you of your parents

If there's an association or learned behavior that you want to extinguish, you may use psychology to change the response to the stimulus. You might be able to do this on your own, or you may need help from a mental health professional. Keep in mind the following tips.

Consistency Is Crucial

In some cases, inconsistency increases negative behaviors. Individuals may feel that because they gained the reward once, it will happen again if they try hard enough.

Through decades of studying this inconsistent type of reward, scientists have found that inconsistent rewards lead to increased attempts to get the rewards. This is called the partial-reinforcement extinction effect (PREE), and researchers have found that through a partial reinforcement schedule animals show a greater resistance to extinction.

Therefore, reducing stimulus may make things more difficult. You may need to eliminate the reward in every circumstance to extinguish the previously conditioned behavior or response. 

For example, in a study with mice, scientists may randomly choose whether to give the mice treats or not when the mouse rings a bell. The mice will not know when they will receive treats, so they might ring the bell day and night until they receive them again, potentially believing that their actions and not random circumstance brought them the reward. Scientists who want to practice extinction might remove the treats altogether for an extended period. The mice may learn that the bell is no longer associated with treats, depending on how long they were conditioned. Even with this type of extinction, after hours or days an extinguished behavior can re-occur. This is called spontaneous recovery. 

On a human level, you might see inconsistency in your relationships. For example, you may have grown up with a caregiver who sometimes gave support and sometimes didn't. You may have developed an insecure attachment style in response, eventually leading to avoidance or obsessively reaching out for love in your adult relationships in response to what you learned as a child. However, studies show that attachment styles can change with therapy, understanding, and willingness.

An Extinction Burst Might Come First

Extinction may not happen quickly. Before extinction occurs, you may experience an "extinction burst”. When you no longer get a reward you associate with something else, you might try harder to obtain it for some time. Often the extinction curve showed this sort of trend: if the child doesn't get a toy, they may cry more or act more dramatically than the first time. Extinction burst means that the unwanted behavior may increase before it becomes extinct. However, if you're aware that this will happen, you might choose to avoid giving the reward until extinction has occurred.

The Response May Change With No Better Result

Another challenge you may encounter when trying to extinguish a behavior is that equally troublesome behaviors may emerge. For example, if crying doesn't bring the child the reward of the toy, they might engage in other unhealthy actions to replace the extinct behavior. They might scream, kick people walking by, or pull items off the store shelves. This situation is called extinction-induced variability. However, in trying different ways of getting the toy, they may stumble onto positive behaviors that get them what they want. You might then reinforce those behaviors to produce a healthier response. 

Counseling For Extinction

If you're trying to accomplish extinction, the psychological methods required may seem too complex to understand or implement correctly on your own. It may involve extinction learning procedures and applied behavior analysis that may not be found in an article. Beyond that, your situation can be unique, so you may seek personalized guidance to help you manage your symptoms. 

Some people trying to eliminate behaviors may experience negative emotions like shame or embarrassment. These emotions might keep them from reaching out for help in person. In these cases, they might prefer to reach out to a mental health counselor online. Online therapy is growing in popularity, and researchers are beginning to study its effectiveness in various scenarios. One recent study showed that internet-based extinction therapy effectively reduced excessive worry in study participants.

Platforms like BetterHelp for individuals or Regain for couples can allow you to meet with trained professionals from the comfort of your home, day or night. Additionally, you can choose whether you participate in video, phone, or live chat sessions with your selected therapist.

Learn About Extinction In Psychology


Whether you want to change your child's behaviors, your attachment style, or your habits, you might use extinction in psychology to your advantage by working with a mental health professional. You can talk to a therapist in your local area to get advice on the extinction process, and eliminating the associations causing you trouble or find an online counselor to support you. Regardless of your choice, reaching out for support can be a valuable first step.

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