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Getting Rid of a Behavior You Don’t Like

In the field of psychology, extinction refers to the process of reducing or eliminating a learned behavior by withholding the reinforcing consequences that previously maintained it. Extinction plays a significant role in classical and operant conditioning, shedding light on how behaviors can diminish over time. Below will delve into extinction, examining its applications in classical and operant conditioning and its implications for behavior modification.

Getting Rid of a Behavior You Don’t Like

Classical Extinction

Classical Extinction occurs when a response to a conditioned stimulus diminishes or disappears due to the absence of the unconditioned stimulus. In Ivan Pavlov's seminal experiments, the sound of a bell (conditioned stimulus) was paired with the presentation of food (unconditioned stimulus), leading to salivation (conditioned response) in dogs. However, if the bell is repeatedly presented without the food, the conditioned response of salivation becomes extinct.

In daily life, Classical Extinction can be observed in various scenarios. For instance, if someone fears dogs (conditioned response) due to a previous negative experience (unconditioned stimulus), exposing them to friendly, non-threatening dogs over time can lead to the extinction of their fear response. By consistently exposing the individual to dogs without negative consequences, the conditioned response of fear gradually diminishes.

To provide another example, we can consider a veteran who develops a fear response to thunderstorms due to a traumatic experience in their past. Whenever they hear thunder (conditioned stimulus), they experience intense fear and anxiety (conditioned response). This fear response was initially established because the sound of thunder may be reminiscent of the relentless explosions they had witnessed on the battlefield that naturally elicited fear. 

To address their fear, they undergo a therapeutic classical extinction process. They begin by exposing themselves to recorded sounds of thunderstorms without actual thunderstorms occurring. Initially, the fear response may still be present, as the conditioned response has been deeply ingrained. However, as they repeatedly expose themselves to the recorded thunderstorm sound without any adverse consequences or dangerous situations, the fear response gradually diminishes. Consistent exposure to thunderstorm sounds in a safe environment weakens their conditioned fear response, and they begin associating the sound of thunder with non-threatening situations. With each encounter, the individual can consciously reframe their perception of the thunder, associating it not with the horrors of war but with the cleansing power of nature's symphony, indicating successful classical extinction.

It's important to note that Classical Extinction may vary in its effectiveness and timeline for each individual, depending on factors such as the intensity of the initial conditioning, personal experiences, and the context in which extinction is practiced. Patience, consistency, and gradual exposure are key to facilitating the process of classical extinction and overcoming conditioned fear responses.

Operant Extinction

Operant Extinction is the gradual reduction or elimination of a previously reinforced behavior when the reinforcing consequence is no longer provided. In operant conditioning, behaviors are strengthened or weakened based on the consequences that follow them. If behavior is no longer reinforced, it may undergo extinction.

Mental health professionals may use operant extinction when working with families. Consider the example of a child who throws a tantrum to gain attention from their parent. If the parent consistently ignores the tantrum behavior, the child may eventually realize that their tantrums are no longer effective in obtaining attention. As a result, the behavior of throwing tantrums diminishes over time through operant extinction. Moreover, a therapist may use operant extinction in the therapy room with a client. For example, suppose a client engages in attention-seeking behaviors such as interrupting, talking excessively, or seeking constant reassurance. In that case, the therapist may consistently ignore or minimize these behaviors without providing attention or reinforcement, and the client may eventually stop these behaviors.

In daily life, Operant Extinction can be applied in various contexts. For instance, if an employee frequently interrupts colleagues during meetings to gain attention, the colleagues can collectively practice extinction by refusing to engage or acknowledge the interrupting behavior. Over time, as the interrupting behavior fails to elicit the desired response, it will likely diminish and eventually extinguish.

Key Differences Between Operant and Classical Extinction

Operant Extinction and Classical Extinction are two distinct processes within the realm of behavior modification. While both involve the reduction or elimination of learned behavior, they differ in terms of the underlying principles and mechanisms involved:

Conditioning Types:
  • Classical Extinction is associated with classical conditioning, where a conditioned response is weakened or extinguished due to the repeated presentation of the conditioned stimulus without the unconditioned stimulus. The focus is on the association between stimuli.
  • Operant Extinction, on the other hand, is associated with operant conditioning, where behavior is weakened or extinguished by withholding the reinforcing consequence that previously maintained it. The emphasis is on the relationship between behavior and its consequences.
  • In Classical Extinction, the conditioned response weakens over time as the conditioned stimulus is presented repeatedly without the unconditioned stimulus. The absence of the unconditioned stimulus leads to a gradual reduction or elimination of the conditioned response.
  • Operant Extinction involves gradually reducing or eliminating behavior when the reinforcing consequence is no longer provided. The behavior gradually diminishes over time by withholding the reinforcement that previously maintained the behavior.
  • Classical Extinction primarily focuses on the conditioned response previously associated with the conditioned stimulus. The goal is to weaken or eliminate the conditioned response through repeated presentation of the conditioned stimulus without the unconditioned stimulus.
  • Operant Extinction focuses on the behavior and its relationship with reinforcing consequences. The aim is to reduce or eliminate the behavior by withholding the reinforcing consequence that previously reinforced it.
  • In Classical Conditioning, the absence of the unconditioned stimulus serves as the basis for extinction. The conditioned response decreases as the conditioned stimulus is presented alone without the reinforcing unconditioned stimulus.
  • In Operant Conditioning, extinction occurs when the reinforcing consequence previously maintained the behavior is no longer provided. By withholding the reinforcement, the behavior gradually decreases and may eventually extinguish.

Challenges and Considerations

While extinction is a powerful tool for behavior modification, it comes with challenges. One common challenge is an extinction burst. When a behavior is no longer rewarded, the individual may exhibit an increase in the frequency or intensity of the behavior. For example, if a child's tantrums are no longer reinforced, they might throw tantrums to regain the desired response. It is crucial to remain consistent during this phase and continue withholding reinforcement to facilitate extinction.

Another consideration in extinction is spontaneous recovery. After a behavior has gone through extinction, it may reappear when exposed to its original context or associated cues. Consistency in not reinforcing the behavior will lead to its re-extinction.


Extinction in classical and operant conditioning provides valuable insights into modifying and eliminating learned behaviors. Classical extinction is associated with weakening or eliminating a conditioned response by repeatedly presenting the conditioned stimulus without the unconditioned stimulus. Operant extinction, however, involves reducing or removing a behavior by withholding the reinforcing consequence that previously maintained it. While classical extinction focuses on the association between stimuli, operant extinction centers around the relationship between behavior and its consequences. By understanding the principles of extinction, individuals can apply these concepts in various settings to shape behavior and promote positive change. However, it is important to approach extinction with patience, consistency, and an understanding of the potential challenges that may arise. By appropriately applying extinction techniques, individuals can modify behaviors and foster personal growth and development.

Additional Resources on Behavior Therapy


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