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Extinction: What It Is and How We Use It

Mother daughter loving - extinction


Every single behavior that we all engage in happens for a reason; it is somehow being reinforced.  One of the most studied and understood phenomena in behavioral science is this: reinforcement strengthens behavior, and so if behavior is occurring, then it is being reinforced.   You brush your teeth daily (hopefully), and your mouth feels clean afterward.  You heat your soup in the microwave, and then it tastes better.  You type on the keyboard, you see words appear on the screen.

Reinforcement example diagrams

In the diagrams above, the right (third) box shows the reinforcer for each of those behaviors.  It's the reason that we continue to engage in those behaviors; there is a payoff that makes the behavior worthwhile. 

Extinction: stopping or withholding the reinforcer following a response, that eventually leads to a decrease of that response in the future.  

Let’s take those three examples above and imagine that the reinforcer no longer occurs following the specific behavior.  After brushing your teeth, your teeth still feel dirty and scummy.  After putting your soup into the microwave and turning it on, you remove it to find that it is still just as cold as when you put it in.  You are working on a report and as you type on the keyboard, you glance up to find nothing at all has been written on the screen.

Question: How long would you continue to do those things if the behavior no longer produced the expected outcome? 

Eventually, we would all stop engaging in the behavior when the desired outcome stopped occurring.  This is extinction. It is the dying off of behavior once the reinforcement no longer occurs following the behavior.  There are natural instances of this in our daily life; putting money into a broken vending machine, calling a phone number and getting a busy signal, trying your key in the door after the locks have been changed.  

In Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), we can intentionally reduce unwanted (or problematic) behavior by identifying what the current reinforcer is for the given behavior (i.e., why the behavior is occurring), then we teach the child a more appropriate means of getting their needs met (Read: Misbehavior = Communication), and withhold the reinforcer when the unwanted behavior occurs, which eventually leads to a dying off of that behavior. 

Do you think that you would have a more peaceful home if you could work on decreasing some of your child's misbehavior?

Get a free digital worksheet to help you identify what reinforcers may be maintaining your child's problem behavior.  Once you know the reinforcer, you can work on withholding it, to reduce the problem.  Also, subscribe below to our newsletter to be the first to know when our Extinction Module is available!




Free Download: Identify the Reinforcer Worksheet

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