The presence of your absence: A conditioning theory of grief

Behav Res Ther. 2018 Jul;106:18-27. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2018.04.006. Epub 2018 Apr 24.


I present a conditioning theory of grief. From conditioning research on appetitive disorders (e.g., addiction and binge eating), I borrow the concept cue-elicited craving. More precisely, the theory postulates that, throughout a life together, a variety of cues become associated with the presence of the loved one and that because of this these cues can trigger craving and (an action tendency for) searching for the deceased. Starting from this perspective, I additionally invoke extinction phenomena to explain the possible persistence of grief. Arguably, the theory has good heuristic value, because it allows to explain a variety of grief symptoms and to bring together existing knowledge in a unifying learning framework. In addition, the theory has good predictive value, because it opens the door to considering new research and treatment directions.

Keywords: Associative learning; Conditioning; Extinction; Generalization; Grief.

MeSH terms

  • Association Learning / physiology*
  • Conditioning, Psychological / physiology*
  • Extinction, Psychological / physiology*
  • Generalization, Psychological / physiology
  • Grief*
  • Humans
  • Psychological Theory*