Key Takeaways

  • Extinction in psychology is the idea that you can reduce or eliminate an unwanted behavior by making it less likely that a certain reward or response will occur after engaging in the behavior.
  • According to extinction, conditioned behaviors tend to fade when they’re not used or reinforced. This allows us to update unhelpful or troubling behaviors with new, updated associations. 
  • It can be difficult to change the way we respond to what happens in our environment. But by learning more about how our brains learn and process information we can learn to interrupt the patterns we want to change. 

Have you ever struggled to overcome a fear or change a behavior? If you’re like most people, there are probably some things you wish you could stop doing or a new routine you wish you could adopt. Maybe you wish you could stop biting your nails, staying up too late, or checking your phone when you’re eating dinner with friends. No matter the habit you’re trying to break, you’ve probably experienced the frustration of making your best effort to change, only to revert to old habits. 

If this has happened to you, know that you’re not alone and it’s not a sign of weakness. Behavior change can be challenging because our brains are wired to stick to the behaviors we already know. 

Fortunately, behavior change is possible. It starts with learning more about the science behind why we get stuck in these patterns — and, more importantly, how we can interrupt them. 


The basics of extinction in psychology

Imagine that on your way to work each morning, you have a habit of swinging through the drive-thru of your local coffee shop. Each time you stop, you order your favorite drink — a sugary latté in the largest size they offer. This little luxury helps you make it through your stressful commute and gives you a boost of energy to start the day. But inevitably, a few hours go by, and your energy level crashes and you suspect that all that sugar might be the cause of your recent stomach aches. 

In this example, you might decide you want to quit your latté habit. But shifting this behavior might be more challenging than you thought because it’s a part of your daily routine. In your mind, it’s closely linked or associated with something else you do every weekday — commute to your office.

So how could you interrupt this cycle and weaken the link between your lattė habit and your daily commute? Enter the concept of extinction, an idea that comes out of two well-established theories of learning, classical and operant conditioning.


How our brains learn

Throughout our lives, we’re constantly having new experiences and learning new things. In response, our brains create associations that serve as links between our ideas and experiences that guide our behavior and help us make sense of the world around us. 

For example, perhaps you experienced a car accident as an adult. For some time afterward, you may experience a fear of driving. This fear is a response to a newly associated stimulus (driving) and represents how the process of associative learning shapes behavior. However, as we continue to learn and grow our brains update these associations with new information. This new information may help us shift the way we feel about past events and in doing so, help us change our behavior. 


The role of extinction in behavior change

Extinction tells us that you can eliminate (or “extinguish”) a behavior by breaking the association between a trigger and an unwanted response. So in our coffee shop example, you would need to weaken the link between the latté and your morning commute in your mind to “extinguish” the unwanted behavior. 

What does this look like in real life? If you wanted to make it easier to avoid the coffee shop on your commute, you would need to change up your routine. You might try making coffee at home or taking a different route to work that would make it inconvenient to stop at your usual spot. Of course, shifting long-held habits can take some time. But this simple example of extinction illustrates how the weakening of a conditioned response can support meaningful change. 


Extinction and mental health

Over time, our learned associations can impact our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in a variety of ways. Some of these associations are helpful and protective, but others can negatively impact our mental health. For example, perhaps you spent several years working in a manufacturing environment where there were frequent safety concerns. When a certain alarm rang, you knew to halt work because there was either a problem with a piece of equipment or someone had gotten seriously hurt. Now, despite working in a different setting, you have an anxiety response when you hear a sound that reminds you of that alarm. The learned association you developed (alarm = danger) has led to heightened anxiety and a decline in your mental health.

Fortunately, by using the concepts of extinction along with other supports, a therapist can help you create new associations and weaken your anxiety response. They may use an intervention known as exposure therapy, to help you gradually increase your exposure to uncomfortable sounds during therapy sessions. This would help you extinguish the learned association between alarms and danger so that when you encounter them, they no longer make you feel afraid. 


Find mental health support with Path

Whether you’re working to change a behavior or overcome a phobia, a mental health professional who understands the science of human behavior can help. 

At Path, we’re here to make it easier to find a behavior-focused provider who takes your insurance. When you’re ready, we can connect you with a therapist within our network who you can meet with from the comfort of your home

And, our network of over 8,000 licensed therapists means you can be seen this week. 

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