1. Population extinction is a fundamental ecological process. Recent experimental work has begun to test the large body of theory that predicts how demographic, genetic and environmental factors influence extinction risk. We review empirical studies of extinction conducted under controlled laboratory conditions. Our synthesis highlights four findings. First, extinction theory largely considers individual, isolated populations. However, species interactions frequently altered or even reversed the influence of environmental factors on population extinction as compared to single-species conditions, highlighting the need to integrate community ecology into population theory. 2. While most single-species studies qualitatively agree with theoretical predictions, studies are needed that quantitatively compare observed and predicted extinction rates. A quantitative understanding of extinction processes is needed to further advance theory and to predict population extinction resulting from human activities. 3. Many stresses leading to population extinction can be assuaged by migration between subpopulations. However, too much migration increases synchrony between subpopulations and thus increases extinction risk. Research is needed to determine how to strike a balance that maximizes the benefit of migration. 4. Results from laboratory experiments often conflict with field studies. Understanding these inconsistencies is crucial for extending extinction theory to natural populations.