There a few interesting phenomena we study in behavioral psychology when it comes to the reduction of maladaptive (“bad”) behaviors by their consequences. The process by which a behavior is reduced or eliminated by removing the factors that maintain or reinforce it, is called extinction. That is the end goal. Sometimes it works quickly, and other times it doesn’t. The challenging part is figuring out why.
Where it all starts is in a framework called functionalism. In this framework, we see certain types of behaviors as “operants”; meaning that they operate on their environment in order to accomplish something. They are a response with a purpose. What functionalism does is to take these behaviors, in whatever form they are in, and use the context of the situation or repeated situations, to hypothesize why they may be exhibited by the person. In other words, to find the function of the behavior.
The process of extinction is necessitated by knowing the function of the behavior. Extinction works by removing that maintaining factor of the maladaptive behavior; the thing it is functioning to get, in order to make it useless. Behaviors that do not achieve their function, decrease, and are replaced by more adaptive or useful learned behaviors. This is a basic concept in behavioral science. It’s useful to note that the function of a behavior might not always be apparent, or easy to discern. Sometimes it takes several instances of the same behavior in similar situations to see what the function of that behavior is.
Let’s preface examples with the 4 most common functions of learned (operant) behavior: Escape, Access (Items/Activities), Attention, and Sensory. Most behaviors are governed by these either individually, or in combination. “Control” over specifics of these functions are also theorized to be included in the exact conditions that are preferable to the individual.
Now for some examples:
A child in a grocery store wails and grabs for candy bars on the shelves every time they go to the store.
What’s the maladaptive behavior? Wailing and grabbing.
What might be the hypothesized function of that behavior? Access (to the candybars).
It might be that somewhere along the line, that behavior was reinforced by that candybar being given to quiet the crying, or even that candy bars are a common reinforcer to crying behaviors. The history is useful to know, but not the most important feature in decreasing this behavior; the function is.
What we could do to stop the crying and grabbing is to give the candy bar. This is not extinction. Extinction is when a behavior is weakened and is unlikely to happen again. Giving the candy bar is actually going to satisfy the behavior and reinforce it (strengthen it), by what’s called reinforcement and satiation. It’s satisfying it, making that function stronger. The crying stops, this time, but next time it will be back because it was useful.
So what would an extinction procedure looks like? That would be denying or depriving the function. The crying and wailing would NOT receive the candy bar. Not this time, or every time after. As the crying and grabbing would no longer achieve the candy bar goal, it would decrease, giving the opportunity to teach a replacement behavior that could receive a candy bar (asking nicely, etc).
An adolescent does a great job when it comes to completing their Math, English, and History homework, but every Tuesday when they’re given Music homework on their clarinet, they tantrum and throw their bookbag.
What is the maladaptive behavior? The tantrum and throwing of their book bag.
What might be the hypothesized function? Escaping the Music homework is most likely. (Remember: Don’t jump to the “Attention” guess too quickly unless you see a beneficial social effect from other people in the situation).
It might be, that when the adolescent screams, yells, and throws their bag, they get a stern talking to, but never actually have to do that music homework afterwards. (This is also a situation where Time-Outs often fail). The screaming stops, the throwing stops, but this is not extinction. Again, it’s reinforcement and satiation. The music homework never gets done, so it’s been effectively escaped. The function of escape is satisfied. Next Tuesday, you would probably see this behavior occur again when the new fresh homework is assigned.
So what would an extinction procedure looks like? Again, denying or depriving the function. The screaming and throwing of the bag would not receive that out from the homework. Guardians or parents might continue to present the homework option, or a variation including help, but that total escape would not occur. In the following situations, those screaming and throwing behaviors would again be met with a consistent presentation of the homework demand (modified or otherwise), and would decrease the screaming and throwing because they do not work, or achieve their function. Here, skills such as taking a small break, breaking the homework down into manageable steps, or even requesting help would be feasible options for replacement behavior.
It just made it worse!…Not really. That is an Extinction Burst.
In an ideal world, that pattern would happen every single time. This is for the most part true, but there is a phenomenon called an Extinction Burst, which throws a wrench into the extinction process, as a treatment. An Extinction Burst is related very closely to the function of the behavior. When the function of the behavior is not achieved, sometimes the behavior increases in intensity and frequency in order to regain that pattern the person was used to. The behaviors actually become worse than before.
This is where teachers, guardians, parents, and even behavioral professionals, want to give up. Why try something that is making it worse? As an old adage goes, sometimes things get worse before they get better. An Extinction Burst is actually a sign of functional weakening. It is a last push of that function’s expression through that behavior. The last vestige of that behavioral pattern being the “fittest” of its repertoire to succeed. If the extinction continues, the burst ends, and that is when a replacement behavior is most likely to be able to be taught.
So what would an extinction burst look like in our previous scenarios?
In scenario #1, with the child and the candy bar. Parents/Guardians might refuse the candy bar and then see the Extinction burst. Grabbing becomes more aggressive, screaming becomes wailing, gasping, sobbing, and lasts longer.
In scenario #2, the adolescent with the music homework might scream louder, use harsher language, throw property harder, and exhibit longer durations or frequency of the destructive behaviors.
Giving in to the behaviors here, satisfying their function, would be easy for most guardians/parents. Unfortunately, it is exactly the purpose of those behaviors and the burst. Extinction Bursts are an effective adaptation. Maybe not prosocial, or useful in the longer term to the individual, but the increase in intensity pays off, from an evolutionary or phylogenic perspective.
The Extinction Burst would end if it is deprived and replaced, and very quickly if there is a replacement behavior that is effective to a degree that would be useful across the lifetime and society. Behaviors that have been useful for longer periods take longer to extinguish, and often have their extinction bursts. It is not an easy process for entrenched maladaptive behaviors with longer histories of success with their function. Certain behaviors (“Please!”/ “Thank You!”, “I need a break from this”), may have less stark effects than their maladaptive counterparts at first glance, but the fact they are useful across almost all situations in the person’s life makes them more likely to be reinforced by consequences in more settings and across a longer span of time.
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- Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.
- Lerman, D. C., & Iwata, B. A. (1995). Prevalence of the extinction burst and its attenuation during treatment. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 28 (1), 93-94.
- Ducharme, JM, Van Houten R. Operant extinction in the treatment of severe maladaptive behavior: adapting research to practice. Behav Modif. 1994 Apr;18(2):139–170
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