What is Extinction in Conditioning? - Definition & Explanation

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  • 0:05 Definition of Extinction
  • 0:55 Extinction in Operant…
  • 2:50 Factors that Influence…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lisa Roundy

Lisa has taught at all levels from kindergarten to college and has a master's degree in human relations.

Extinction is the disappearance of a previously learned behavior when the behavior is not reinforced. In this lesson, learn more about extinction in operant conditioning and test your knowledge with a quiz.

Definition of Extinction

Imagine you work as a clerk at a local grocery store. A mother and her young son come in the store regularly. The child always screams when he is checking out, until the mother agrees to buy the child some candy. For a long time, you witness the mother buying candy during checkout so the child will stop screaming. Then, one day, you notice the mother refuses to buy the child candy. The child became increasingly upset when denied candy; however, a few weeks later, you see the mother and child at the store, and the child does not scream for candy.

You have witnessed the extinction of a behavior - the disappearance of a previously learned behavior when the behavior is not reinforced. Extinction can occur in all types of behavioral conditioning, but the term is most often associated with its occurrence in operant conditioning.

Extinction in Operant Conditioning

In operant conditioning, behavior is reinforced by either gaining something positive or having something negative taken away when the behavior occurs. In the previous example, the reinforcement was the child receiving candy. Since the child received candy when he screamed for it as he was leaving the store, he learned that screaming would provide him with candy.

When the mother stopped buying the candy for the child when he screamed, the reinforcer was removed. After a while, the child stopped the behavior and no longer screamed during checkout. Extinction was demonstrated when the behavior (screaming) discontinued.

Perhaps you're wondering why the child increased the intensity and duration of screaming before the behavior stopped. Consider this: have you ever experienced a situation in which something suddenly stops producing the desired effect? Maybe you push the 'on' button on your TV's remote control one day, and nothing happens. The first response you are likely to have to this is to push the button many more times in rapid succession to see if you can get the TV to turn on. This is similar to what you saw the child do in the grocery store. Since the child had learned that screaming would produce candy, the child would scream longer and harder at first in an effort to get the desired outcome.

What was just described is called an extinction burst, which is the initial increase in the frequency and magnitude of the behavior prior to the gradual decrease and extinction of the behavior. This is especially likely to occur when the reinforcer is removed abruptly.

Another phenomenon that you may witness after extinction is spontaneous recovery. Spontaneous recovery is the sudden reoccurrence of a behavior after it has shown extinction. This is a short-lived and limited occurrence if the behavior continues to not produce reinforcement.

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