Understanding Spontaneous Recovery in Psychology With Examples

Spontaneous recovery is a vital phenomenon in learning, and was first seen in the Pavlovian theory of classical conditioning. It points towards the fact that a learned response post extinction, isn't completely unlearned and can be effectively recovered. PsycholoGenie explains the concept of spontaneous recovery by using some illustrative examples. Take a look!
PsycholoGenie Staff
Last Updated: Dec 09, 2017
Extinction Vs. Spontaneous Recovery
Extinction doesn't mean forgetting the previously learned response, but simply means learning a new response as a result of lack of reinforcement or punishment. Spontaneous recovery, on the other hand, is the resurfacing of previously reinforced or punished response.
Spontaneous recovery in psychology, refers to the sudden resurfacing of a conditioned response, which was previously extinguished due to lack of association between a conditioned and an unconditioned stimulus.
Tough to comprehend? Let's learn the concept, the way Pavlov did.
Most of us are well aware of the famous classical conditioning experiment. Apart from understanding, how a certain response is learned, Pavlov made several attempts to understand the aftereffects of learning. While doing this, he derived two important concepts, one of extinction, and the other of spontaneous recovery. Pavlov noticed that by elimination of the association between bell (CS) and food (UCS), the response of salivation in dogs began to fade, and eventually disappeared. This, according to Pavlov, is extinction. However, when Pavlov reintroduced the bell, a day later, the dogs instantaneously began salivating. This is termed spontaneous recovery.

The recovered response might not be as strong as the original response, but its presence justifies the fact that there is no such thing as unlearning. Refer below to some more explanation and examples of spontaneous recovery.
Spontaneous Recovery Explained with Examples
The above example is in case of animals, you must be surely wondering about spontaneous recovery in humans. Also, the above example cites spontaneous recovery in context to a reinforced behavior; is it possible in case of a punished behavior as well? Let's take up two examples to understand this.
Spontaneous Recovery in Humans
➤ In context to human memory, spontaneous recovery occurs in two cases. One - in case of retroactive inhibition, and two - in case of traumatic memories. To elaborate on both, the former refers to hindrance in retrieval of previously learned information due to newly learned information. The latter refers to emotionally unpleasant memories, caused as a result of psychologically or physically painful events of the past.
Retroactive Inhibition
➤ To cite an example of retroactive inhibition, let's say a group of students are asked to thoroughly read and comprehend a passage (a story of 400 words). After they're done with it, they are given another comprehension passage (different version of the same story) which is to be read and understood. Once they're done with the second passage, they're asked simple questions from the first passage. When the answers are analyzed, it is seen that most responses are actually in context to the second passage.

The next day, students are once again asked questions from passage 1, and this time the students tend to answer most of the questions correctly. This means that the information learned on the previous day wasn't forgotten, but was suppressed due to the addition of new information. After a day's rest period, the students were able to recover this information as a result of spontaneous recovery.
Traumatic memories
➤ In case of traumatic memories, they can either resurface gradually or spontaneously. This depends on the intensity of the traumatic event. A traumatic event can be something as minor as an accident or a major event like death of a loved one. The former necessarily has more to do with physical injury, whereas the latter being more long term, affects psychologically. For example: a man drives to office in his car. He mostly takes the highway, as it is the fastest route, and isn't crowded. One day due to some reason, the man takes a remote route, and meets with an accident resulting in serious injury. After recovery, the man avoids the route where he had met with an accident, and prefers the highway.

(A few weeks later...) The man has to visit a store, and he takes the same remote route (without conscious realization). When he reaches the spot (where he met with an accident), he's suddenly reminded of the traumatic event, and immediately slows down his car (as a precautionary measure). This sudden resurfacing of a traumatic memory, is considered as spontaneous recovery. This example can also be considered as the one illustrating a punished behavior (as said before), and not a reinforced one.
Spontaneous Recovery in Operant Conditioning
➤ The concept of spontaneous recovery, according to B. F. Skinner, is quite similar to that of Ivan Pavlov. However, in Skinner's operant conditioning, he also introduces an aspect of 'reduction' in a certain behavior, by the means of a punishment. The above example perfectly illustrates this aspect of Skinner's theory. To make things clearer, let's take the example of the famous rat experiment.

➤ Skinner, in his experiment, introduced the operant conditioning chamber (Skinner's box). The chamber had two levers, one was connected to a food-pellet dispenser, and the other was connected to an electric circuit. To get food, the rat had to press the correct lever. After several attempts, the rat learned to associate the pressing of a specific lever with food.

➤ Now that the rat had learned this behavior (pressing the lever), due to the resulting reinforcement, Skinner decided to observe the rat's behavior in the absence of reinforcement. After several attempts of pressing the food lever, the rat learned that it doesn't dispense food anymore (extinction). This made the rat exhibit new behavior like scratching the cage, pressing the second lever, pressing the food lever repeatedly, and the like.

➤ However, after a brief rest period, when the rat received a food pellet after pressing the same (previously pressed) lever, the previously learned behavior resurfaced. Thus, implying spontaneous recovery.
More Examples on Spontaneous Recovery
Example 1
➤ A boy wakes up in the morning, brushes his teeth, and calls out to his mom for breakfast. (Note that waking up, and brushing is associated with calling out to mom for breakfast.) In the evening, his mom has to visit a friend, and she is to return in a couple of days. The boy says goodbye to his mom, and also tells her to enjoy her trip.

The next day he wakes up, brushes his teeth, and (like always) calls out to his mom for breakfast, but quickly recollects about his mom being at her friend's place. His calling out to his mom for breakfast, as well as remembering about her not being home, are perfect examples of spontaneous recovery.
Example 2
➤ A woman's husband has the habit of honking when he reaches home from work. One day, he drives out of town on a business tour, and informs his wife that he would return once his work is completed. On the same day, the woman hears a honk (same type) at the time her husband returns each day. She rushes out to see if it's him, but unfortunately, it's someone in the neighborhood.

She hears a honk each day, at the same time for 3 days, and assumes it's the guy from the neighborhood (extinction). However, on the 4th day, she hears a honk, and her husband is back. This leads to a spontaneous recovery, of the wife's previous behavior of responding to the honk.

In a nutshell, spontaneous recovery would simply mean sudden re-emergence of certain previously learned information.