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Techniques Conditioning > Extinction

Description | Example | Discussion | See also



Extinction is the disappearance of an action caused by the removal of cues that have prompted it.

One way to stop an unwanted action is simply to ignore it, especially if attention is a significant component of what the subject seeks. Another way is to remove cues, such as the presence of food.

Extinguishing unwanted actions in humans is most effective when these actions are verbal. It can be difficult to extinguish physical actions such as stealing or physical aggression.

When extinction starts to work, replace the negative with a positive, such as hugging a child who has, for now, stopped whining.

When you are trying to reduce something that has become habituated, look for ways to fill the void of removed habit, giving them something positive to do in place of the unwanted action.


A dog owner gives attention to its pet when the animal barks. The animal learns to bark when it wants attention. Then the owner stops giving attention, turning away. The dog keeps barking but to no avail. Eventually, the barking gets less and less and then stops.

A child nags its parents to buy a toy. The parents completely ignore the nagging. The nagging increases for a while, but eventually fades.


When an action and a result are paired, the subject knows that the action will get the result. If the result is desirable for the subject, then the subject will regularly complete the action. When the action is unwanted by the trainer, the

Conditioning is often a two-way street. Pets, children, partners and more often condition their owners, parents and so on into doing things they want, such as giving attention and resource. Without noticing, we find ourselves stroking and feeding our dogs and buying children the toys they want. We kid ourselves that we 'wanted' to do this, but really we do it because we have been conditioned to do so. If we try to stop this pattern, the pet or child just becomes more insistent and perhaps creative in their methods of persuasion.

When an action reliably leads to a desired result, a subject learns to increase the action, even if it is not wanted. When the action does not lead to the desired result, the subject will initially repeat the action, becoming more intense and insistent with it. It may even add further actions. But when nothing works, the actions will decrease and eventually stop.

Extinguishing unwanted actions requires patience and determination. It may be uncomfortable watching them whine and cry, yet denying them what they want does work in reducing and eliminating their wanting.

See also



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