, Volume 236, Issue 1, pp 7–19 | Cite as

Extinction of instrumental (operant) learning: interference, varieties of context, and mechanisms of contextual control

  • Mark E. BoutonEmail author


This article reviews recent research on the extinction of instrumental (or operant) conditioning from the perspective that it is an example of a general retroactive interference process. Previous discussions of interference have focused primarily on findings from Pavlovian conditioning. The present review shows that extinction in instrumental learning has much in common with other examples of retroactive interference in instrumental learning (e.g., omission learning, punishment, second-outcome learning, discrimination reversal learning, and differential reinforcement of alternative behavior). In each, the original learning can be largely retained after conflicting information is learned, and behavior is cued or controlled by the current context. The review also suggests that a variety of stimuli can play the role of context, including room and apparatus cues, temporal cues, drug state, deprivation state, stress state, and recent reinforcers, discrete cues, or behaviors. In instrumental learning situations, the context can control behavior through its direct association with the reinforcer or punisher, through its hierarchical relation with response-outcome associations, or its direct association (inhibitory or excitatory) with the response. In simple instrumental extinction and habit learning, the latter mechanism may play an especially important role.


Extinction Instrumental learning Context Interference 



Preparation of this article was supported by Grant RO1 DA 033123 from NIH. I thank Catalina Rey, Scott Schepers, Mike Steinfeld, Eric Thrailkill, Travis Todd, and Sydney Trask for comments.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The author declares no conflicts of interest.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of VermontBurlingtonUSA

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