Extinction Burst in Psychology, Conditioning and Examples

James Linder, Yolanda Williams
  • Author
    James Linder

    Dr. Linder has taught undergraduate Psychology courses for the past 15 years both in person and online formats along with hybrid courses. He has a Doctorate, B.A. and M.S in Psychology and Health Psychology respectively.

  • Instructor
    Yolanda Williams

    Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Learn what an extinction burst is in psychology. View the definition and examples of extinction bursts. See tips about how to control extinction bursts. Updated: 10/06/2021

Table of Contents


What is an Extinction Burst?

In psychology, one method of influencing behavior is through operant conditioning. In simple terms, operant conditioning states voluntary behaviors occur more frequently when they are in some way reinforced with a desirable outcome. Any result of voluntary behavior that increases the frequency of that behavior is a reinforcement. The reinforcement may be in the form of achieving something positive and desirable, such as a physical reward or removing something undesirable from our environment, such as an annoyance. Once this link has been established or learned, the behavior will continue and increase in frequency. However, when the reinforcement of a positive outcome is removed, operant conditioning predicts the behavior will decrease or stop. Over time, this is true and is a well-known process called extinction. Part of this process is a brief and often dramatic increase in the behavior when the corresponding reinforcement is removed. This is called an extinction burst. What is an extinction burst? When a voluntary action that produced a desirable result in the past is tried more frequently, the reinforcement is removed until it becomes clear that the action will no longer produce the intended result.

Extinction Burst Definition

The definition of an extinction burst is a sudden and dramatic increase in behavior when reinforcement for that behavior has been removed. It is a temporary response pattern and will diminish and then stop as the reinforcement for the behavior no longer follows the voluntary action. This part of operant conditioning theory predicts when and how voluntary behaviors will increase or decrease depending on the outcome they produce. If a desirable outcome, or reinforcement, follows an action, that action will increase in frequency. The nature of the behavior, or social acceptability of the behavior, is not considered in this reinforcement and behavior pairing. Despite the desirability of the action, if it is reinforced, it will continue. Extinction is the process of stopping a target behavior. This is a pattern that has been studied extensively with both animal and human research.

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Extinction Burst Examples

It was with animals where an extinction burst was first identified and subsequently named in experimental research. Animals are trained using positive reinforcement. When the animal produces a desired behavior, they are given a food treat after the action has occurred. Anyone with pets has observed this behavior. For example, if food treats are kept in a certain drawer, the pet soon learns that the sound of the drawer opening indicates food will soon follow. When the drawer is heard opening, the animal comes running. This pattern will continue until the food is moved to another location. For a period of time after the food is moved, the sound of the drawer will not only continue to produce the behavior, but the animal may park themselves near the drawer in anticipation of being rewarded. After a period of time, extinction will occur when the animal no longer pairs the drawer with its food, and there is no reason to continue to produce the behavior. At this point, the behavior has been extinguished. It is important to note that the new location of the food will trigger the same behavior as the old location did.

When this cat heard the food being prepared, it showed up despite what it was doing. Hearing the same noises, the animal would still show up even if the food was not present. This action would increase in intensity until the animal does not expect the food.

Reinforced Animal Behavior

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is an extinction burst?

An extinction burst is a sudden spike in the frequency of a behavior when the reinforcement for that behavior is removed. Because the action has produced a desirable result in the past, it is tried rapidly until it is clear the action no longer will result in the expected reward.

What happens during an extinction burst?

During an extinction burst, a learned pairing of behavior and favorable consequence is disrupted. The reinforcement is removed. When the behavior does not elicit the intended response, it is tried again and more rapidly until it becomes clear the action will not result in the reward.

How long does an extinction burst last?

The length of time an extinction burst lasts varies based on how well learned the pairing of the behavior and reinforcement has become. Most extinction bursts are short-lived but very intense. With children, a common time frame of an extinction burst with tantrums is about one week until the behavior subsides when it does not achieve its goal.

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