Extinction: Going The Way Of The Dinosaur
Now that we know how reinforcement works, we should also understand what happens when you choose to stop reinforcing a behavior.
This is called extinction. A behavior that was previously reinforced is suddenly no longer being reinforced and as a result, will eventually decline and then cease to be used.
Extinction is useful when you want a behavior to go away on its own without the use of punishment and, if a previously learned behavior has become more problematic due to reinforcement, is the best way to have a behavior fade away.
Important Point About Extinction: Extinction Burst
Before we dig further into extinction, you have to understand what will happen when you try to extinguish a behavior. Namely, most of your subjects will react with an extinction burst. This is when, after you stop reinforcing a behavior, your subject suddenly dials their behavior to 11 in order get a reaction or reinforcement out of you.
You can see this all the time in toddlers. If the toddler doesn’t get what they want, then they throw a tantrum. That tantrum is an extinction burst.
Let’s say you’re the parent of this figurative toddler. Previously, the toddler asked you for something and it usually resulted in getting exactly what they wanted. But now, they’re asking for what they want and what they want (the reinforcer) is not being given to them. Their behavior is now on a schedule of extinction and their immediate reaction will be to increase their behavior so they can force the reinforcer from you.
This is where the tantrum comes in. They will cry, yell, pout, throw their toys, throw themselves, hit things, hit themselves, you name it, they’ll do it. They want you to know just how unhappy they are. This is what a textbook case of an extinction burst will look like. While it may not always be as severe, it will certainly be similar.
But it’s in extinction bursts that one of the most dangerous pitfalls in behavior training lies. Most parents will cave in when their children throw a tantrum. This is especially common if the tantrum happens out in public where people are looking at and judging you for what you’re doing. But it’s also during this time that you have to make sure, under no circumstances, no matter what happens, you do NOT REINFORCE THIS BEHAVIOR.
Ignore the kid, do whatever you want, but do not cave in and give the child what it wants.
Why is this so dangerous? I’m glad you asked.
The Dangers of Extinction Bursts
Imagine you were that child.
You want candy. You demand your parents to give you candy.
They, being logical parents, say no.
You throw a tantrum.
Your parents now freak out, give in to your demands, and give you candy.
What will you do next time? Ask nicely?
What tends to be the common trend, is that most children will not ask nicely again. Instead, they are more likely to throw a tantrum in order to get what they want because that’s what they believe it takes for them to get what they want.
By giving your child what they wanted when they were exhibiting a new behavior, you are now positively reinforcing the tantrum behavior. As a result, your child is more likely to throw a tantrum next time.
But this is where it can get very dangerous for you. If your child throws a tantrum the next time it wants something, and you try to ignore it the way you’re supposed to, then your figurative child will increase the intensity of their behavior. When that happens, you have to continue to not reinforce that behavior. If you do, then you are reinforcing an increasing intensity in the tantrum behavior, and next time, this child will go back to the more intense tantrum behavior in order to get what they want.
A quick point about this specific scenario and why it happens in real life more than it should: reinforcing your child during a tantrum is negatively reinforcing for the parent.
You are escaping and avoiding your child’s tantrum. Once you give your child what they want, the aversive goes away, and you are reinforced with a sigh of relief. As a result, if you didn’t know better, there’s a higher likelihood that you’ll appease your child’s tantrum again next time just to make your child’s crying (the aversive) stops. Be aware of when this is happening to you and stop yourself.
While this has all been with a child as an example, this applies to any subject. When you try to extinguish a behavior in a dog, they will immediately try that behavior at a higher intensity and a higher frequency in order to get you to reinforce them.
But There’s A Good Side To Extinction Bursts
In my experience, especially with dogs, extinction bursts aren’t always a bad thing.
There an old quote one of my dog training friends once told me: “frustration leads to innovation.” While this is a quote that applies to real life, it also works for operant conditioning. Extinction bursts are the result of your subject expressing their frustration. Sometimes, whoever is doing the extinction burst will give you new and novel behaviors. Reinforcing these new behaviors will allow you to establish a replacement for the unwanted behavior. The previous rule against reinforcing during an extinction burst can then work in your favor. Instead of increasing the intensity of the unwanted behavior each time, your subject instead will immediately go to the new behavior they performed previously.
Alternatively, if your subject in in the middle of an extinction burst and doesn’t offer a new behavior, you can take the time to teach and reinforce an alternative behavior that will get them what they want next time.
What about Extinction?
Now that we’ve discussed extinction bursts, we can go over extinction.
All that needs to happen in order to begin extinguishing a behavior is to stop reinforcing it. Extinction bursts can (and most likely will) happen, but even after the extinction burst wears out, the behavior you are trying to extinguish can still persist for a long period of time.
The amount of time it takes to extinguish a behavior is going to be based upon what schedule of reinforcement was keeping the behavior going. This will be discussed in another article, but be aware that behaviors can continue to persist long after you have stopped reinforcing it.
Remember, the only thing that needs to happen for you to begin extinguishing a behavior is to stop reinforcing it. To the subject, all this means is that their behavior is neither being punished nor being reinforced. It’s just giving them nothing.
This can be as simple as making your subject follow through with a task regardless of their complaints (complaints aren’t being punished or reinforced, just ignored), or selectively reinforcing behaviors that you want while ignoring everything else.
In this way, extinction allows us to get rid of unwanted behaviors without the need for punishment. When combined with reinforcement, extinction becomes an important tool in modifying behaviors.