Extinction, in psychological parlance, results in the elimination of a conditioned response by withholding reinforcement.
In classical or respondent conditioning, a learned response disappears when the association between conditioned and unconditioned stimuli is eliminated. For example, when a conditioned stimulus (a light) is linked with an unconditioned stimulus (meat) by showing them simultaneously to a dog, the dog can be trained to salivate in response to the light. However, if the unconditioned stimulus (meat) no longer appears for a prolonged period of time, the association will be lost. The dog's learned or conditioned response to the light will be extinguished. As a result, the dog will stop salivating in response to the light.
In operant conditioning, the subject of the experiment acquires a conditioned response by learning that its actions will bring about specific consequences, either positive or negative. When the link between this operant response and its consequences is not reinforced, the response is extinguished. Thus, a rat, having learned that pressing a lever in its cage will produce a food pellet, will gradually stop pressing the lever if the food pellets fail to appear.
Just as behavioral therapies use reinforcement to foster desirable behaviors, they may extinguish problematic ones by removing forms of reinforcement. For example, inappropriate behavior by children is often rewarded by extra attention from both adults and peers. Eliminating extra attention by utilizing time-out in response to undesirable behavior defuses this process. Time-in or out can eliminate the undesirable behavior by removing the reward of extra attention. Although it works slowly, extinction is a popular technique for modifying behavior in children because it does not employ punishment.
See also Behavior modification ; Behaviorism ; Reinforcement ; Skinner, B.F.
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