What is spontaneous recovery?

This blog answers: What is spontaneous recovery? How does spontaneous recovery work?

What is spontaneous recovery?

Spontaneous recovery is a learning phenomenon described in the famous classical conditioning or Pavlovian conditioning. In spontaneous recovery, a previously extinct conditioned behavior remerges after some time has passed since its extinction.

The phenomenon refers to the fact that the simple extinction of behavior is not the same as its unlearning. Although it might be, an extinct behavior is not necessarily an unlearned one.

For instance, a dad brings ice cream for his five years old daughter every time he returns from his office. When he comes home, he rings the bell, his daughter hears it, and she rushes to the door because she is excited about the ice cream.

Her dad comes home at 6 pm. Every time her dad rings the bell around 6 pm, she gets excited and rushes to the door. She has associated the ring of the bell with the ice cream. The ring of the bell around 6 pm means ice cream to her.

Even if someone else rings the bell around 6 pm, she rushes to the door with equal excitement. Now, after a while, her dad stops bringing her ice cream. The bell rings: she gets excited and rushes to the door but finds out that there is no ice cream.

After repeated reoccurrences, she stops associating the bell ring with ice cream. At this point, extinction has occurred. After a week since the extinction, her dad has to go on an international business tour and stay there for a week.

When he returns home after a week and rings the bell, she rushes to the door with the same excitement, expecting an ice cream. In other words, the behavior that had gone extinct has now remerged. This is known as spontaneous recovery in psychology. 

How does spontaneous recovery work?

Understanding how spontaneous recovery works requires an understanding of classical conditioning. Classical conditioning is a technique through which learning through association occurs.

In classical conditioning, a neutral stimulus is associated with an unconditioned stimulus. The neutral stimulus initially produces no response. After repeated association with the unconditioned stimulus, the neutral stimulus starts to elicit the same response elicited by the unconditioned stimulus.

In other words, it has now become a conditioned stimulus that produces a conditioned response. For instance, Tiffany, a three years old girl, has no fear of parrots. When a parrot is presented to her, she smiles, plays with it, and likes it.

The parrot is a neutral stimulus in this case. Now, every time you present the parrot to Tiffany, you also present a very loud and uncomfortable sound along with it. The loud sound makes Tiffany uncomfortable and elicits fear in her.

The loud sound is an unconditioned stimulus in this case. Her response of discomfort and fear is an unconditioned response in this case. After repeatedly pairing the parrot with the loud sound, something extraordinary happens.

Tiffany has now associated the parrot (neutral stimulus) with the loud sound (unconditioned stimulus). So, now, Tiffany shows fear and discomfort when you present the parrot to her in the absence of a loud sound.

She no longer likes the parrot that she used to love. In this case, the parrot has become a conditioned stimulus, and the fear-provoking in her is a conditioned response. Now stop pairing the loud sound with the parrot. Present the parrot to her but in the absence of the loud stimulus.

With time Tiffany will learn that the parrot is no longer something to fear. At this point, extinction of behavior has occurred. Now stop presenting both the parrot and the loud sound to her for a time, let’s say a week.

After a week, present the parrot again to her. You would see that Tiffany would again show fear and discomfort as you present the parrot to her. Even though extinction had occurred, she is still afraid of her. This is what spontaneous recovery refers to. Even though the behavior had gone extinct, it wasn’t unlearned.


We often learn through associations. Most of our phobias are learned behaviors that we learn through association. If you break the association, you can make the behavior go away. However, it might reemerge, which means that just breaking the association doesn’t lead to unlearning. Breaking the association only temporarily unlinks the neutral stimulus and the unconditioned stimulus.

Frequently asked questions: What is spontaneous recovery?

Is spontaneous recovery-related only to classical conditioning?

No, spontaneous recovery can occur both for learning through classical conditioning or operant conditioning.

Is spontaneous recovery beneficial or harmful?

It depends upon what kind of behavior has reemerged due to spontaneous recovery. If the behavior remerged is harmful, then spontaneous recovery is harmful. If the behavior remerged is beneficial, then spontaneous recovery is beneficial. For instance, spontaneous recovery of a phobia is harmful, while spontaneous recovery of positive behavior is beneficial.

Is spontaneous recovery related only to learning?

Apart from classical and operant conditioning, spontaneous recovery is also related to memory.



Spontaneous Recovery in Psychology (Definition & Examples)