the reappearance of a conditioned response after an operant has been taken away. See extinction.

What Is Spontaneous Recovery In Psychology?Pavlov’s Definition of Spontaneous PsychologyHow Does Spontaneous Recovery Work?FAQs

What Is Spontaneous Recovery In Psychology?

Have you wondered why you have some behaviors that you seem to have forgotten and have not exhibited for some time? However, being exposed to events, places, or familiar experiences, the behavior instantly springs back to the surface. 

What you experience is called Spontaneous Recovery, a phenomenon of sudden behavior display previously believed to be extinct. In psychology, the term extinction means the disappearance or weakening of behavior previously learned through association with another occurrence. This can apply to associations formed through both classical and operant conditioning. 

In a more technical definition, Tull and Kimbrell (2000) in their publication entitled Emotion in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, explain spontaneous recovery as “the return of the fear response following the passage of time since the response was extinguished.”

Why is this process so important? Spontaneous recovery proves that when a behavior becomes extinct, it does not mean the person has unlearned it. In layman’s terms, if in the past your salivary glands became active at the sight of sour food, and having not seen sour food for a long time does not mean you have an unlearned craving for sour food, while the response seems to have disappeared, it does not equate to forgetting or eliminating the behavior. 

Another importance of spontaneous recovery is that it brings up the question of what is happening during extinction and why there is a loss of behavior. When the stimulus is reintroduced, the behavior returns through spontaneous recovery, not necessarily unlearning. It further suggests that instead, something happens during the extinction procedure that temporarily suppresses performance while leaving some initial learning in place. Rescorla (2004) claimed this in his Learning Memory article. 

When does it occur? What is the spontaneous recovery period?

For spontaneous recovery to occur, some conditions need to be met. First, there must be an extinguished or extinct behavior. Second, the formerly absent stimulus that triggered the extinct behavior in the past must be present. 

Once these two conditions are available and form an association, spontaneous recovery is likely.  

What is the difference between spontaneous recovery and an extinction burst?

There is another phenomenon called Extinction Burst often confused with spontaneous recovery. While the latter is the revival of a seemingly “lost” behavior, the former is the temporary increase of an extinct behavior. 

Coyne and Whittingham (2019) in their famous book, Acceptance, and Commitment, shared that an extinction burst is characterized as a worsening of behavior, not getting better, due to a stimulus introduced. To counter the child’s behavior problems, the authors used a positive parenting strategy. As contradictory as it may appear, the authors posit that this increase in the temporary increase or burst in negative behavior is a sign that the strategy is working as it will gradually decrease and eventually be extinguished. 

Pavlov’s Definition of Spontaneous Psychology

Who is Pavlov and what were his significant findings on spontaneous recovery?

Ivan Pavlov is one of the most prominent and influential figures in psychology. However, he was not a psychologist but a physiologist. His interest in digestion led him to study condition reflexes which eventually, as fate would have it, brought him to his famous dog experiments. 

In his classic experiment, dogs were conditioned to salivate after hearing a metronome tone. This tone introduction was repeated several times while presenting food. As time went on, the tone alone caused the dogs to salivate. When he presented the metronome repeatedly without food, Pavlov observed that salivating stopped, which resulted in extinction. 

Pavlov reintroduced the tone after some time and the dogs salivated again. This resurfacing of the conditioned response is called spontaneous recovery. 

How is spontaneous recovery controlled in a research study?

Research, particularly experimental studies employ several ways to control spontaneous recovery. Some of the common ways are the following: 

  • Cue Exposure
  • Appetitive Conditioning
  • Stimulus Control 
  • Conditioned Inhibition

How Does Spontaneous Recovery Work?

How is spontaneous recovery affected by time?

As time passes, the inhibition from extinction loses strength and is inversely proportional to the increase of spontaneous recovery probability. Furthermore, in a study by Gallistel & Papachristos (2020) on mice, they discovered that a longer period of acquisition learning or conditioning results in a higher probability of spontaneous recovery. 

Classical Conditioning

Below are real-life examples of classical conditioning:

1. A disrespectful teacher affects the motivation of students, making them feel unhappy. Students associate attending school with disrespectful teachers and feel bad about coming to school.

2. Food poisoning causes fear of the food that causes you to be sick. When someone eats a certain food and experiences food poisoning from it, the person associates that food with getting sick. The sight, smell, or even taste of that type of food will elicit a negative reaction. 

Operant Conditioning

Below are real-life examples of operant conditioning:

Parenting is one of the most basic operant conditioning processes. Below are some parenting activities considered operant conditioning:

  • Acknowledging kids when they do something good
  • When they complete chores, reward them with reasonable requests.
  • Allowing them time for video games after completing their homework
  • Grounding them as a punishment
  • Withholding their allowance if they did something wrong

Operant conditioning can also be applied in the workplace: 

  • Rewarding an extra day off for the diligent work over the week
  • Giving bonus for hitting a sales goal
  • Suspension due to excessive tardiness
  • Recognition for exemplary behavior


Is spontaneous recovery permanent?

When Pavlov’s work became available to the public, in 1943, Clark L. Hull also posited that each occurrence of spontaneous recovery leads to the building up of a fatigue-like situation that is specific to that behavior and that reduces its succeeding likelihood of occurrence. In short spontaneous recovery is not permanent, over time, and due to repetition, it will not be a complete recovery and lesser in every repeated instance. 

Does the conditioning process affect spontaneous recovery after extinction? 

In the study by Gallistel & Papachristos (2020) on mice, they discovered that a longer period of acquisition learning or conditioning results in a higher probability of spontaneous recovery. 

Does spontaneous recovery occur when behavior is no longer reinforced?  

Spontaneous recovery works under the concept of extinction. Extinction is different from unlearning, which suggests that even without reinforcement, behavior resurfaces. 


Cain, W. S. (1979). To know with the nose: keys to odor identification. Science, 203(4379), 467-470. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.760202

Gescheider, G. A. (1976). Psychophysics: Method, Theory, and Application. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203774458

Gescheider, G. A. (1997). Psychophysics: The Fundamentals (3rd ed.). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1997-08651-000

Goldstein, E. B. (2010). Sensation and Perception (8th ed.). Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

SPONTANEOUS RECOVERY: “In spontaneous recovery a conditioned response will appear after conditioning is taken away.”
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