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Extinction of an Operant Response

What happens when reinforcement stops? The animal may still perform the behavior for a while, but eventually-if the reinforcement never resumes-the animal will stop performing the behavior. This is the operant conditioning version of extinction. The behavior that disappears is said to be extinguished. As with classical conditioning, the extinguished behavior typically reappears after a time, in what is called spontaneous recovery. An extinction procedure must be carried out several times to be totally effective.

How is extinction carried out, in operant conditioning? What is a simple way to explain spontaneous recovery?

To understand spontaneous recovery, it helps to put yourself in the place of the laboratory animal. If you were receiving food pellets at a particular place (a food bar, let us say) and one day the food did not arrive, how would you interpret the situation? You might conclude that the food was permanently gone, but you might also wonder if the problem was temporary. You would check again later. Spontaneous recovery is like testing the possibility that delivery of reinforcers will resume at a later time. If extinction continues through the period of spontaneous recovery (the food never comes back) eventually the animal gives up entirely, and extinction is complete.


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