One of the very first things you learn about when you go to school for psychology is conditioning. Most folks are familiar with classical conditioning — Pavlov’s dogs, all that jazz. It’s based on producing involuntary responses to a certain stimulus. In the case of that famous experiment, dogs learned to salivate when a bell rang — after they were (accidentally) conditioned to pair it with being fed.
There’s another kind of conditioning that followed those early experiments that’s fundamental to psychology but isn’t as broadly known. That’s something called operant conditioning. This is most famously paired with renown behaviorist B.F. Skinner.
Anyway, like classic conditioning, the pattern is stimulus-response. But in operant conditioning, there’s an important twist: These are voluntary responses. In Skinner’s case, rats and pigeons were rewarded or punished based on their behaviors. And they learned and modified their behaviors.
So operant conditioning has more in common with everyday learning as it tends to play out in real life (versus something more pure and instinctual like classic conditioning — although that’s closer to how, say, a trauma response functions than operant).
Anyway, operant conditioning is an interesting field in its own right. And there are a lot of principles involved. But I wanted to focus on something really specific and important today. And that’s this: Unlearning something is harder than learning it.
Seriously. It’s true.
Skinner called the cessation of a desired behavior “extinction.” This would occur — eventually — when a certain behavior stopped being reinforced.
Well, sorta. Because what Skinner found (and countless other studies have found since then) was that there was also a strange phenomenon called spontaneous recovery. Spontaneous recovery was really fascinating… basically, even if you didn’t reinforce an old behavior for a long time and it mostly went away, sometimes the animal would still do it once in a while anyway.
So yes. Old habits do die hard. (Some might argue they never completely die, just become so infrequent that they hardly matter anymore.) And it’s found reliably in the lab.
This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.