In psychology, extinction refers to the gradual weakening and eventual disappearance of a learned behavior. In other words, the response has ‘gone extinct’ like the dinosaurs!
Extinction tends to occur when a behavior that was learned is no longer reinforced or rewarded. However, can also occur if a person becomes desensitized to rewards.
Another common situation where extinction occurs is when one conditioned response is replaced by another. For example, you might replace your junk food habit with an addiction to running. Now, every time you feel stressed, you feel the urge to go for a run instead of eating junk food.
Explanation of Extinction in Psychology
The clearest example of extinction in psychology can be found in Pavlov’s famous experiment.
Here, the dog learned to associate the sound of a bell (conditioned stimulus) with food (unconditioned stimulus).
So, whenever the dog heard the bell, even if there was no food present, it started to salivate (conditioned response).
However, Pavlov realized that over time, the dog eventually stopped salivating whenever it heard the bell. This was because it realized that the bell no longer signified food.
The dog’s salivation had become extinct.
Extinction Examples (Psychology)
- Overcoming trauma: Nate was in a horrible car accident. For many months afterwards, whenever he approached the intersection of the accident he felt anxious. But after a while, he didn’t feel anxious any longer and now has no trouble passing through.
- Getting over a crush: Alisa used to get excited whenever Jason smiled at her between classes. But now that he has a girlfriend and doesn’t smile at her anymore, she’s over it. She hardly even notices he’s there.
- Extinction of phobias: Sarah used to be terrified of spiders, but after repeatedly exposing herself to spiders in a controlled setting without any negative consequences, she no longer experiences fear when she sees one.
- Dogs unlearning behaviors: Mitchell’s dog used to get so excited whenever he opened the pantry door to get the dog food. But now that the food is kept in the garage, Mitchell’s dog doesn’t care much about the pantry.
- Disassociation: Dave used to feel anxious every time his phone rang because he knew it would be his ultra-bossy ex-wife. But now that she has remarried and doesn’t call, he doesn’t feel so anxious when the phone rings.
- Eliminating bad habits: John used to bite his nails whenever he was nervous, but after intentionally stopping himself and replacing that behavior with a healthier one, he no longer feels the urge to bite his nails when nervous.
- Moving on from your past: Joanne has bad memories of school. Whenever she saw her school uniform, she would feel anxiety. But after time passed, she found her school uniform in the back of her cupboard and didn’t feel anxious. In fact, she tried it back on for old time’s sake.
- Losing your appetite for a food: Mr. and Mrs. Williams used to enjoy the wine and cheese at the country club every weekend. But since the club closed, they find they are less interested in either wine or cheese.
- No longer associating sickness with food or events: Kumar used to feel ill whenever he saw kimchi because the first time he tried it, he had the flu and it made him feel much worse. But now, he has no problem sitting down for kimchi and a few beverages with friends.
- Breaking addiction patterns: Lisa used to smoke cigarettes whenever she felt stressed, but after quitting and finding alternative coping mechanisms, she no longer feels the urge to smoke.
- Reducing aggression: Jack used to lash out in anger whenever he felt frustrated, but after being consistently ignored or met with calm responses instead of reactions, he no longer resorts to aggressive behavior. Here, his response became extinct because it was replaced with another one.
- Babies unlearning patterns: Janelle’s baby used to get so excited when she put him in the car’s baby seat so they could go to the playground. But now that she takes him everywhere, the car doesn’t excite him so much.
- Losing an aversion when something fundamentally changes: The smell of sticky tofu used to make Jason cringe whenever he saw the restaurant that serves it. But ever since the new owner took over and stopped making sticky tofu, the sight of the restaurant no longer bothers him.
- Overcoming fear of place: Antonio never liked working on the top floor of the construction site. Every morning, as soon as he turned the corner on the way to work and it came into view, he would start to feel queasy. But now that he has moved to management, with his feet on the ground, the sight of the building doesn’t bother him at all.
- Decreasing attention-seeking behavior: Rebecca used to constantly interrupt conversations and demand attention from others, but after being ignored or redirected to more appropriate ways of seeking attention, she no longer behaves in such an attention-seeking way.
Case Studies and Research Basis
1. Phobias (Stein & Matsunaga, 2006)
A phobia is defined as a persistent fear of an object, place, or situation. It is usually considered irrational, because the item that evokes the fear response poses no danger to the individual with the phobia.
However, the person with the phobia might consider their reaction to be perfectly understandable.
For example, a person might develop a fear of the color red because they were in a horrible car accident that involved a large red truck crashing into their bicycle.
Afterwards, the person feels anxious and fearful whenever seeing the color red.
In terms of classical conditioning, a conditioned stimulus (the color red) has become associated with an unconditioned stimulus (the intense fear evoked by the crash). Now, whenever the individual sees the color red (conditioned stimulus), it causes them to be fearful (unconditioned response).
The fear response can subside on its own as a result of the individual repeatedly seeing the color red but experiencing no harm. Or, it may be addressed as a target behavior in applied behavior analysis. Eventually, the fear response may become extinct.
2. Non-Extinction of Attitudes to Brands (Till et al., 2008)
Celebrities are often used in commercials to sway viewers to engage in certain purchase behaviors. Many brands firmly believe in the power of celebrity endorsements.
As explained by Till et al. (2008), “Because celebrities also generate positive feelings from consumers, their use as unconditioned stimuli in conditioning trials should lead to affectively favorable responses toward brands” (p. 180).
To examine the effects of extinction on the power of celebrity endorsement, Till and colleagues presented a styling gel commercial to small groups of research participants. The brand of gel was endorsed by Jennifer Anniston.
After viewing the commercial with the celebrity endorsement, some participants experienced an extinction phase that involved no pairing of the celebrity and the brand.
Two weeks later, all participants’ attitudes toward the brand were assessed.
The results indicated that participants’ favorable attitudes toward the brand were robust, even after an extinction procedure and two-week delay.
“These findings…suggest that conditioned brand attitudes are relatively resistant to extinction” (p. 193).
3. Extinction in Education (Knapp Center, 2017)
In the context of the classroom, the term “extinction” takes on a slightly different meaning.
Teachers often face unwanted behavior from disruptive students. Applying an extinction procedure can help eliminate the behavior without applying punitive discipline.
The first step to implementing an extinction procedure in the classroom is to have a clear understanding of the reason underlying the student’s behavior.
If a teacher mis-identifies the child’s motive for being disruptive, then they can easily apply the wrong procedure.
The Knapp Center for Child Development identifies 4 motives for a child’s behavior and the corresponding extinction procedure the teacher should implement. Two are described below.
- Attention: The student engages in unwanted behavior to receive social attention.
- Extinction Procedure: The teacher should not reinforce the behavior. This means ignoring the behavior completely; no eye contact, no verbal statements, no physical contact.
- Escape: The student engages in a behavior to avoid something they find aversive.
- Extinction Procedure: Do not discontinue the task/activity. The teacher should insist on completing the task.
The Extinction Burst Phenomenon: Reappearance of a Response
The process of making a behavior extinct is exactly that: a process. When a certain stimulus (like the bell), is no longer associated with the unconditioned stimulus (such as food), the conditioned response (salivation), will gradually fade away.
However, the conditioned response may reappear suddenly as a burst of activity. That is called an “extinction burst.”
An extinction burst is a short-term sudden increase in the response. It usually occurs early on in the extinction process.
A teacher can implement an extinction procedure in the hopes of eliminating unwanted behavior.
But because the student’s strategy has been so effective in getting them what they want, it will take some time for them to understand the new set of contingencies.
Teachers will notice that just when they think the behavior has become extinct, it suddenly reappears.
The extinction burst may even be stronger and more exaggerated than before the extinction process was initiated. But if the teacher sticks to the plan, eventually the behavior will become extinct.
This video provides some real-life examples of extinction and the dreaded extinction burst.
Extinction In Classical and Operant Conditioning
Extinction occurs in both classical and operant conditioning.
- With classical conditioning, extinction occurs when the conditioned stimulus (sound of the bell) is no longer associated with the unconditioned stimulus (food).
- In operant conditioning, extinction occurs when the goal behavior is no longer being reinforced.
The pigeon is placed in a Skinner Box and its behavior is shaped to peck at a button. After approximately 15 minutes (at the 5:20 mark in the video), the pigeon understands the connection between pecking and being rewarded.
After the goal behavior has been acquired, the reinforcement is terminated. Now there is no reward for pecking at the button.
At the 6:30 mark, the pecking behavior has become extinct. At the 6:40 mark, the pigeon will peck vigorously at the button again. The behavior has not been completely extinguished.
Extinction is when a previously conditioned behavior gradually disappears. This occurs as a result of it no longer being associated with a specific stimulus, like a very unpleasant object or situation.
Some phobias develop as a result of fear or pain being associated with a specific situation. Sometimes those fears can dissipate if a person encounters the situation enough times without anything tragic occurring.
As it turns out, research on celebrity endorsement suggests that the association between a glamorous actress and a brand can be resistant to extinction.
In educational settings, the term extinction means the process of eliminating a student’s unwanted behavior. There are several techniques that teachers can apply, but beware, the dreaded extinction burst may rear its ugly head early on.
Ferster, C. B, & Skinner, B. F. (1957). Schedules of Reinforcement. Appleton-Century-Crofts. https://doi.org/10.1037/10627-000
Janney, D. M., Umbreit, J., Ferro, J. B., Liaupsin, C. J., & Lane, K. L. (2013). The effect of the extinction procedure in function-based intervention. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 15(2), 113-123.
Lattal, K. M., & Lattal, K. A. (2012) Facets of Pavlovian and operant extinction. Behavioural Processes, 90(1), 1-8. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.beproc.2012.03.009
Skinner, B. F. (1979). The shaping of a behaviorist. New York, Knopf.
Stein, D. J., & Matsunaga, H. (2006). Specific phobia: a disorder of fear conditioning and extinction. CNS spectrums, 11(4), 248-251.
Sullivan, L. & Bogin, J. (2010). Steps for implementation: Extinction. Sacramento, CA: The National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders, M.I.N.D. Institute, University of California at Davis School of Medicine.
Till, B. D., Stanley, S. M., & Priluck, R. (2008). Classical conditioning and celebrity endorsers: An examination of belongingness and resistance to extinction. Psychology and Marketing, 25(2), 179–196. https://doi.org/10.1002/mar.20205