On Extinction

Extinction takes place when reinforcement stops; when that happens, the behavior it is supporting stops, too. Extinction can be a natural procedure. For example, infantile feeding behaviors in puppies and kittens disappear as more adult behaviors develop to exploit new sources of reinforcement. Extinction can also be a deliberately induced research tool, intrinsic to many procedures for measuring memory, intelligence, and the effects of drugs.

It's something we all wish for at times (will that dog ever stop barking?!). Extinction, however, is always an aversive experience, sometimes extremely aversive, triggering rage, aggression, and despair. Furthermore, once learned, no behavior ever really disappears; all you can hope for is that you have extinguished the behavior under present conditions and to all reasonable extents and purposes.

Nevertheless, extinction continues to be regarded as not just a possible but a preferred tool in many textbooks on learning and behavior. In this Session, Karen Pryor will discuss how to recognize when you are accidentally triggering extinction and the resulting extinction-induced aggression, how to avoid the unnecessary cruelty of deliberately induced extinction, the downside of punishment as a pathway to extinction, and some reinforcement-based alternatives.

Karen Pryor