What Is Extinction In Psychology? How Extinction Affects Our Minds?

Extinction in psychology refers to weakening or diminishing a previously learned behavior or conditioned response. This insightful article teaches us about extinction in psychology and how it affects our minds.

Imagine psychology as a cool toolbox for understanding our minds. One tool in there is called “extinction.” It’s like rewiring our brains when we’ve learned something that’s not helpful anymore. Think of a dog that used to wag its tail when a bell rang, expecting food. But if we keep ringing the bell without food, the dog learns that the bell doesn’t mean snacks anymore.

Now, let’s talk about us! When we want to shake off fears or icky habits, we can use this “extinction” tool. It’s like facing your fears without the scary part. So, suppose something usually makes us super anxious. In that case, we let ourselves experience it without anxiety. Our brains catch on that it’s not such a big deal, called “extinction learning.” But, fair warning, sometimes our initial freak-out might worsen before it gets better.

Let’s explore more about extinction in psychology, its causes, types, examples, and how extinction affects our minds.

What is extinction in psychology?

Imagine you’re playing a game with your brain – the game of learning. You know how when you do something and get a reward, your brain goes, “I should do that again!” That’s like a lightbulb going off in your head, saying, “This equals good stuff.”

Now, let’s talk about “extinction.” Imagine you have a pet dragon, and it breathes fire whenever you give him a treat. Your brain connects “treat” with “fire,” and you expect fire whenever you treat your pet. But then, one day, you stop giving him treats. Guess what? The fire trick starts to fizzle out. Your brain learns that treats don’t mean fire anymore.

In real life, “extinction” isn’t just about magic tricks or dragons. It’s a powerful tool psychologists use to help people deal with fears, phobias, and unwanted behaviors. Let’s say someone is scared of heights. By safely facing their fears, like looking at pictures of tall buildings, without the scary part of being up high, they’re using “extinction.” Their brain learns that heights aren’t as dangerous as they thought, and the fear becomes less intense over time.

Remember, though, our brains can be a bit stubborn. When trying to break an old habit or fear using “extinction,” there’s something called “extinction burst.” It’s like your brain saying, “Wait, where’s the thing I’m used to?” So, your fear or habit might feel stronger for a moment before it starts to fade. It’s important to stick with it during this burst because, eventually, your brain figures out that the old connection isn’t reliable anymore.

In a nutshell, “extinction” in psychology is like untangling a messy knot in our brains. It helps us disconnect triggers and reactions we’ve learned over time. By facing our fears or confronting bad habits, we teach our brains to update their understanding. Extinction has the power to make our mind healthier and happier.

What are the types of extinction in psychology?

Extinction in psychology is like rewiring our brains to let go of old habits. It is fascinating how our cognitive processes can evolve. Let’s check out the different types of extinction in detail:

  • Classical extinction
  • Operant extinction
  • Spontaneous recovery
  • Renewal effect
  • Stimulus control extinction
  • Operant extinction burst

Classical extinction:

Classical extinction is like hitting “unpair” on your Bluetooth devices. Imagine your dog, excited for a walk whenever you grab the leash. But if you pick up the leash without walking, your dog learns the connection isn’t always true. Over time, the excitement weakens, and your dog stops expecting a walk just from seeing a leash. This is classical extinction in action – dismantling the old brain link between two things.

Operant extinction:

Operant extinction is like changing the locks on your favorite candy drawer. Think about a kid who gets a cookie every time they finish their veggies. If the cookie treats vanish, the kid might not gobble veggies as much. The behavior of eating veggies is linked to the reward of cookies, so when the cookies disappear, the behavior loses its sparkle. This is operant extinction – the behavior weakening due to the missing reward.

Spontaneous recovery:

Spontaneous recovery is like a surprise visit from an old friend. Picture yourself quitting checking your phone during dinner, then slipping and checking it one day. It’s like your brain saying, “Remember the old day?” This temporary reappearance of the old behavior is a spontaneous recovery, like a “blast from the past.”

Renewal effect:

The renewal effect is like seeing a familiar face in an unexpected place. Let’s say you conquer a fear of heights in one room, but the fear comes back in a different setting. You face your fear and win in one environment, but the fear renews when you’re somewhere new. It’s like your brain saying, “This is a whole different ball game.” That’s the renewal effect – the change in context leading to a revived reaction.

Stimulus control extinction:

Stimulus control extinction is like putting healthier snacks in the front row of your pantry. Imagine you’re trying to stop eating cookies. If you rearrange your pantry so cookies are hard to reach and put fresh fruits upfront, you’re more likely to grab the fruit. By altering the environment, you control the stimuli that trigger your behavior. This is stimulus control extinction – tweaking your surroundings to influence your choices.

Operant extinction burst:

Operant extinction burst is like a stubborn child testing the boundaries. If a child used to get your attention by throwing tantrums, and you suddenly stop reacting, they might throw an even bigger tantrum at first. Their brain is saying, “Is this not working anymore?” This initial surge in the behavior is the extinction burst – the last-ditch effort before the behavior fizzles out.

What are the causes of extinction in psychology?

Extinction in psychology is like watching old habits fade – fascinating, right? Let’s explore why this happens in detail:

  • Absence of reinforcement
  • New learning
  • Behavioral competition
  • Extinction cue
  • Memory decay
  • Interfere
  • Cognitive restructuring

Absence of reinforcement:

Imagine a game where you used to earn points for shooting targets. If the points suddenly stop coming, you might lose interest in playing. In psychology, this is similar to extinction caused by the absence of reinforcement. When a behavior previously filled by rewards or consequences no longer leads to those outcomes, the behavior weakens. Your brain learns that the connection between the action and the reward isn’t reliable, so the behavior gradually disappears.

New learning:

Think of your favorite candy you thought was healthy until you learned otherwise. Once you understand the truth, the desire for that candy decreases. This is how new learning can lead to extinction. When you gain new knowledge that contradicts an old behavior, your brain favors the new understanding. The old behavior loses its hold as the new learning takes its place, causing the behavior to weaken and eventually extinguish.

Behavioral competition:

Imagine you always take a shortcut to work but discover a scenic route one day. The new route becomes more appealing, and you might forget the old one. This is similar to extinction caused by behavioral competition. When a new behavior emerges that competes with an old behavior, the old behavior loses its automatic nature. The brain starts preferring the new behavior; over time, the old one fades as it’s used less frequently.

Extinction cue:

Consider a friend who always made jokes, and you laughed every time. If one day you stop laughing, your friend might stop making jokes because they’re missing the cue – your laughter. Similarly, in psychology, an extinction cue occurs when the usual triggers or cues for behavior are absent. Without the cues that prompt the behavior, it loses its relevance and strength, ultimately leading to extinction.

Memory decay:

Recall a skill like playing the piano that you haven’t practiced in years. The memory of how to play fades with time. Memory decay also plays a role in extinction. When a behavior isn’t practiced or reinforced over time, the memory of how to perform the behavior weakens. As the memory weakens, the behavior becomes less likely to occur, resulting in extinction.


Imagine you’re learning to play two musical instruments simultaneously – the guitar and the piano. Sometimes, the notes get mixed up because interference can lead to extinction. When new information or behaviors interfere with old ones, it can disrupt the recall of the old behavior. The new learning competes with or overshadows the old behavior, causing it to weaken and eventually extinguish.

Cognitive restructuring:

Think back to a time when you were afraid of something. But then, you learned about the safety measures and how much fun it could be. This new understanding can lead to extinction through cognitive restructuring. When your thoughts about a feared stimulus change, the fear response weakens. Your brain updates its perception of the stimulus, leading to a decrease in the conditioned response and eventually extinction.

How extinction affects our minds?

Extinction isn’t just about history – it’s like a brain makeover that shapes how we think and act. Let’s break down how the process of extinction can shake things up in our minds:

  • Rewiring neural pathways
  • Behavioral modification
  • Emotional regulation
  • Reducing emotional responses
  • Breaking fear chains
  • Overcoming trauma
  • Adapting to change

Rewiring neural pathways:

Think of it as giving your brain a new path to follow. Imagine you’re scared of dogs. By facing friendly dogs little by little, your brain realizes that dogs aren’t as scary. This reshapes the way your brain connects fear with dogs.

Behavioral modification:

It’s like telling your brain, “Hey, we don’t do that anymore!” Imagine quitting nail-biting. At first, your brain might send signals to bite, but if you stick with it, those signals fade. Extinction helps us let go of behaviors we want to leave behind.

Emotional regulation:

Imagine someone shy at parties. With practice, they attend more gatherings, and their shyness lessens. Extinction helps the brain learn that parties aren’t as scary, teaching us to handle emotions better in situations that once stressed us out.

Reducing emotional responses:

It’s like turning down the volume on emotions. Imagine a fear of heights. Facing the fear over time, like looking at height pictures, makes the fear less intense. The brain realizes heights aren’t a big deal, and the fear response weakens.

Breaking fear chains:

It’s like saying, “You don’t control me anymore!” Picture someone scared of spiders. Gradually exposing them to spiders safely breaks the chains of fears that used to hold us back.

Overcoming trauma:

Imagine someone haunted by a traumatic event. Through safe and controlled exposure to reminders of the trauma, the brain learns that these reminders aren’t dangerous. Extinction transforms those triggers from nightmare fuel to manageable memories.

Adapting to change:

Think of it as giving your brain a little nudge toward change. Imagine someone moving to a new plant. At first, it might feel strange, but as they get used to it, the brain realizes it’s not so bad. Extinction helps us adapt to new situations with a more positive outlook.

What are the factors that may influence extinction?

Extinction isn’t a one-size-fits-all deal – it’s like a puzzle with many pieces that affect how behaviors fade away. Let’s dive into the factors that can shake things up in the process of extinction:

  • Timing and consistency
  • Contextual changes
  • Spontaneous recovery
  • Renewal effect
  • Individual differences
  • Emotional resonance
  • Stimulus generalization
  • Reinforcement schedule
  • Cognitive factors

Timing and consistency:

Imagine teaching a dog tricks – it might get confused if you give treats and sometimes don’t. Extinction works better when you’re patient and consistent. It’s like saying, “Hey, brain, this behavior doesn’t get rewarded anymore, no matter what.”

Contextual changes:

Think of quitting a habit by changing your environment. It’s easier to avoid snacking when you’re not in the kitchen. Extinction agrees – changing where you usually do a behavior can help weaken it. The brain goes, “Wait, isn’t this where we snack!”

Spontaneous recovery:

Sometimes, after a behavior seems gone, it returns for a little visit. It’s like saying, “Hey, remember me?” This is spontaneous recovery – a temporary return. But don’t worry, and it’s like behavior testing if it’s gone.

Renewal effect:

Imagine you’re not scared of spiders at home anymore, but outside, you’re terrified. This is the renewal effect – the fear of returning to a new place. Our brains link behaviors to places, so changing the scene can revive old responses.

Individual differences:

Everyone’s brain works a bit differently. Imagine two people learning to dance – one might pick it up faster. In extinction, some folks let go of behaviors quicker than others. Our unique experiences and traits play a part.

Emotional resonance:

Think of a song linked to a happy memory. If the memory changes, the song might lose its sparkle. In extinction, emotions change, weakening old connections. It’s like saying, “This trigger doesn’t make me feel the same way anymore.”

Stimulus generalization:

Extinction might not cover all bases. Imagine being afraid of spiders, but only the big ones. Extinction might not automatically help with the fear of smaller ones. Our brains learn specifics so that each trigger might need its own “extinction plan.”

Reinforcement schedule:

Different reinforcement schedules influence how quickly behaviors extinguish. Imagine someone trying to quit smoking. If they used to smoke after every meal but suddenly stopped, the urge might linger. But extinction can be more effective if they gradually reduce smoking after meals. Changing the pattern of reinforcement helps weaken the behavior faster.

Cognitive factors:

Our thoughts can impact extinction. Imagine someone who fears public speaking but starts believing they can handle it. This change in perception affects extinction. If you think, “I can do this,” facing the fear becomes easier, and the old fear response weakens.


The psychology of extinction is intriguing, reshaping habits and fears akin to a mental makeover. It’s like a magician’s trick, erasing unwanted behaviors. We explored the different types of extinction, like rewiring our brain connections to let go of old triggers. We peeked into the causes that make behaviors fade away, from the absence of reinforcement to the power of new learning. And we uncovered the factors that can influence extinction – timing, emotions, and even our unique personalities.

Extinction isn’t just erasing; it fuels personal growth, unlocking our best selves. Whether quitting habits or conquering fears, this journey empowers transformation. Now, armed with a better understanding of the what, why, and how of extinction, you’re ready to dive into the world of unlearning and embrace the endless possibilities for a brighter, more resilient mind.