Spontaneous recovery psychology – Simple explanation to recovery psychology with examples!

Spontaneous Recovery is an essential concept in psychology. For those who are not familiar with the terminologies in psychology, “what is spontaneous recovery?” might sound a little complicated. Therefore, let us start from the basics and dive into the concepts of Spontaneous recovery psychology. 

What is spontaneous Recovery in psychology?

Let us start with the spontaneous recovery psychology definition. 

Spontaneous Recovery in psychology means the sudden reappearance of an earlier extinct conditioned response when the unconditioned stimulus has been uninvolved for some time.

To understand the spontaneous recovery definition completely, there are also two other theories you need to learn. Because in psychology, spontaneous Recovery occurs after these two types of conditioning take place.

  1. Classical conditioning – AKA pavlovian conditioning, this is the most well-known of the two types. Pavlov explored the kind of conditioning in his famous dogs’ salivation experiment regarding food and a bell. 
  2. Operant conditioning – This is highly complex conditioning that involves voluntary learning using rewards or punishment.

Classical conditioning

It is the involuntary learning process via the association of neutral stimulus with a biologically potent stimulus that produces an unconditioned response.

Studying this theory through Van Petrovich Pavlov’s experiment is the best way to get a clear idea about classical conditioning. Van Petrovich Pavlov was a Russian scientist who experimented with the digestive system of dogs by offering them meat powder and measuring the amount of saliva they produced. Pavlov rang a bell before providing food for the dogs. As time passes, the dogs started to salivate by the sound of the bell even before presenting the meat powder. This is because dogs associated the bell with the meat powder. This observation directed Pavlov to conclude that the dogs were conditioned to respond to the feeder through the process of classical conditioning. 

Now let us familiarize ourselves with the terminologies using the elements in this experiment.            

  • Neutral stimulus (NS) – a stimulus that cannot evoke any response before conditioning. This later becomes the conditioned stimulus, Ex. the bell in Pavlov’s experiments.
  • Unconditioned stimulus (UCS) – a stimulus that naturally produces a response. Ex. The meat powder in Pavlov’s experiments.
  • Unconditioned response (UCR) – a natural response produced by an unconditioned stimulus. Ex. the dog’s involuntarily salivation at the meat.
  • Association – a connection between two events that produce a learning. Pavlov’s dogs learned to associate the ringing of the bell and the presentation of meat so that they gradually learned to salivate at the bell without even presenting food.
  • Conditioned stimulus (CS) – when the neutral stimulus connects with the unconditioned stimulus several times, the neutral stimulus turns into the conditioned stimulus. Now it is a learned response Ex. the bell.
  • Conditioned response (CR) – a learned response towards a conditioned stimulus. Ex. Pavlov’s dogs learned to salivate to the bell.

Main Elements in Classical Conditioning

There are few main Elements in Classical Conditioning. Those are actually the effects that come along after classical conditioning took place. One such result is the classical conditioning spontaneous recovery we were discussing previously. Let us explore them one by one with examples of classical conditioning in everyday life. 

  • Extinction 

When the unconditioned stimulus no longer reinforces a conditioned response, the conditioned response will come to an end. Example: – if the bell (CS) continuously comes without the meat (UCS), the dog will in time stop salivating (CR) to the bell alone. 

Another example of extinction psychology is children getting excited every day when they hear the ice cream truck’s music. It is because their mother always buys ice cream from trucks. When she stops purchase ice cream, the child gradually learns not to associate the ice cream truck’s music with eating ice cream. After the truck pauses for a few days and then returns, the child gets excited again when they hear the truck music.

  • Stimulus generalization 

When an organism gets conditioned to respond to a certain stimulus, it will also respond to similar stimuli. Example: – Pavlov’s dogs responded to bells of a similar pitch to the original bell. Stimulus generalization psychology definition is the tendency of a novel stimulus to evoke responses or behaviors like those elicited by another stimulus. Generalization psychology response is always predictable and orderly: it will measure less than the effect by the original tone. It will weaken as the new tone differs more from the original. 

Similar behavior is there in humans too. When children learn to talk, they may call any man “daddy” or anything that they can sit upon “chair.” Adults who associate mild electric shock to fear a particular word will respond with anxiety to any synonym of that word. Simultaneously, physical similarity, the usual basis of generalization, is less important than prior learning. 

  • Stimulus discrimination 

An organism would not respond to a conditioned stimulus when detecting a difference in other stimuli. Pavlov’s dogs did not respond to stimuli like bells which were considerably different from the original bell. Responses may also be generalized, letting an individual take an optional course of action if the general response is for some reason precluded. The “Learning” may be considered a balance of generalization and discrimination. An imbalance can lead to negative results. For example, a child scared by a man with a beard may fail to discriminate between bearded men and generalize that all men with beards are to be feared.

  • Spontaneous Recovery 

The reappearance of a conditioned response after extinction and a resting period. Pavlov noticed that even after a significant amount of time had passed, the conditioned response will quickly recover. It is when the unconditioned stimulus and the neutral stimulus are together again one day. The dogs stopped salivating to the sound of the bell. But their salivation recovered spontaneously after a “rest period.”​

Suppose you ever had the question “What is the difference between extinction and spontaneous recovery?” in your head. In that case, I think you have your answers now

Extinction involves inhibition

A conditioned response that can suddenly recover proposes that extinction does not entirely erase a learned association. Instead, extinction inhibits the conditioned response. Apparently, extinction forms new learning splits from the original conditioned learning​.

The new learning “extinguish” the conditioned response by inhibiting its appearance instead of erasing it. The conditioned response is not over. As the initial conditioned response never disappears, it can eventually return.

For example, studies show that sudden Recovery of the fear response after extinction occurs 100% in situations such as fear conditioning​. 

However, Recovery increases over time. With time, the inhibition from extinction diminishes, and the spontaneous Recovery regularly increases. During the recovery phase, the memory from the extinction procedure competes with the reactivated memory from initial conditioning but then fails​. As the new learning does not replace old ones, spontaneous Recovery cannot replace extinction learning also. The Recovery only exists in the presence of extinction learning​.

Therefore, we can say the Spontaneous Recovery is incomplete. The power of the recovered learning is usually smaller than the original learning. If extinction is applied again, the resulting Recovery will become weaker and weaker.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning, AKA instrumental conditioning, is a method of learning the effect of rewards and punishments in a behavior. Through operant conditioning, it makes a connection between a behavior and a negative or positive consequence for that behavior. For example, a student would complete his homework every day. He knows that he will get a reward of a candy (action) or praise (behavior). The same student will be reluctant to miss the homework as he is afraid of getting punished. 

Now let us look at few examples where spontaneous Recovery appears in Operant conditioning. A dog trainer teaches a dog to sit by associating the command “Sit” with food. Then the dog learns to sit whenever the trainer says the word. But after this trainer stops giving it food, the dog gradually terminates responding to the command. Several days later, the trainer tries again, and the dog sits again.

A child runs to the doorstep to greet her father because he always brings home a brand new toy. After the father stops bringing home toys, the child does not run to the door to greet him. After several days, the child suddenly resumes greeting their Dad at the door.

What is spontaneous Recovery in ABA?

ABA stands for Applied Behavior Analysis, a therapy strategy used to enhance learning and modify behaviors. Spontaneous Recovery in ABA shows the sudden reoccurrence of a previously extinguished condition. ABA recovery is a common treatment in behavioral therapy. 

Everyday Examples of Spontaneous Recovery

Have you look into a bunch of scenarios and wonder, “which of the following is an example of spontaneous recovery?” See the following examples involving both classical and operant conditioning to familiarize yourself with spontaneous Recovery. 

When searching examples for spontaneous Recovery, smoking is a good one. When a smoker face cues previously associated with smoking behavior, those cues trigger responses that motivate the person to smoke. 

Some other examples are: – 
  • A child learns to go to sleep when the light is off. But for several months, the child no longer falls asleep when the light is off. Then, he begins to fall asleep again when the light is off.
  • A dog learns to respond to the command “lay down.” Then, one day, he stops listening when told to lay down. Several days later, he begins to lay down again.
  • A parrot learns to repeat after its owner when the owner makes a tapping. However, this parrot stops responding to the tapping, but one day suddenly begins to talk again after hearing the tapping.
  • When her mother comes into the room, the baby learns to stop crying. Then, his behavior fades away even when her mother does come into the room—eventually, the previous response of stopping the crying when the mother enters the room returns.
  • A neighborhood cat would automatically run when someone opens the door to a house. However, with time, the cat stops running and remains where it is. Then this cat begins to run again when a door opens.
There are more examples!
  • A dog runs to the food bowl immediately after taking her morning walk. One day she starts to go back to her dog bed. Then, weeks later, she starts to resume her normal response of running to the food bowl. 
  • Pepperoni makes a child sick every time he eats it. That child grows up, and food allergy goes away. However, at a restaurant, the smell of pepperoni suddenly makes that person feel dizzy.
  • When a person hears the notification chime tone and instinctively reaches for his smartphone. When he realizes it is coming from someone else’s phone, he stops checking the phone. But the reaction can appear again when the tone comes up unexpectedly. 
  • A child walks the same route to school every day. As he passes a particular house, a dog in the yard starts barking loudly at the child, baring its teeth. This is a terrifying experience for a young child. Before all this, dogs were a neutral stimulus. But now, the child becomes scared every time he hears a bark. Years later, he may experience a case of spontaneous Recovery. He may not even remember the childhood dog, but as he walks past the same-looking house with a “beware of dog” sign, he gets uneasy and start to tremble.

If you intend to learn more about the concept of spontaneous recovery psychology, Quizlet is a great platform. This website provides simple learning tools like flashcards, games, and learning tools that let you study anything. 


We can define spontaneous Recovery in psychology as the sudden reappearance of an earlier extinct conditioned response when the unconditioned stimulus has been uninvolved for some time. By this definition, spontaneous Recovery may sound a little complicated. Therefore, it is crucial to learn the terminologies and scenarios with examples to understand the spontaneous recovery definition psychology completely. 

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