Extinction: Dinosaurs and Precise Language

dinosaur-extinction-mauricio-antonA much suggested solution to behavior problems is called an “extinction” procedure. Extinction is said to make a behavior disappear through lack of reinforcement. An example would be the decrease in “going to the store” behavior if the store goes out of business. To understand this behavioral effect it’s important to start at the beginning – the definitions of extinction.

1:  the act of making extinct
or causing to be extinguished
2:  the condition or fact of being extinct or extinguished; also
:  the process of becoming extinct <extinction of a species>
3:  the process of eliminating or reducing a conditioned response by not reinforcing it

When psychologists created behaviorism, later called behavior analysis or the experimental analysis of behavior, they created a lexicon using existing words that fit their purpose and added their own spin to them. For instance, my 1908 unabridged Webster’s dictionary does not list a behavioral definition for “reinforcement.” By 1940 a sub-definition pops into existence. Likewise, #3, above, is a relatively recent acknowledgement that people added a meaning to the word extinction. The question is whether the new meaning of the word clearly describes the promised effect. Does an “extinction schedule” of removing reinforcement match the logical meaning of extinction?

The #1 meaning of extinction includes “causing to be extinguished.” The meaning of extinguished includes the following –

  • to bring to an end :  make an end of <hope for their safety was slowly extinguished>
  • to reduce to silence or ineffectiveness
  • to cause to cease burning :  quench
  • to cause extinction of (a conditioned response)
  • to dim the brightness of: eclipse
  • to cause to be void : nullify <extinguish a claim>
  • to get rid of usually by payment <extinguish a debt>

So, we have two statements about the word extinction that confirm that it means to make something go away. There are no dinosaurs because they are extinct. The fire that destroyed most of San Francisco is no more because it was extinguished. Only the behavioral definitions imply reduction rather than elimination. That is because extinction does not remove behaviors. At best it can temporarilydinosaurs-extinction-theory make them less likely to occur. Most often extinction acts to trigger variability as the animal abandons one behavior temporarily but not permanently. If you use leaves for shelter you will have a problem when fall removes the leaves. That has no influence on your use of trees for shelter when spring once again creates a natural canopy. The point to take away is that the behavioral definition of extinction is a conditional process. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. The problem arises when the word is used with an assumption of unconditional results – and that is how it is most often used. This is a bait and switch tactic intended to imply power where no such power exists. (The creation of a behavioral sub-definition of the word extinction has another purpose that we will get to later.)

Early behaviorists in need of a professional jargon took a word from general use that describes a complete absence of something (One of the synonyms for extinction is annihilation) and then tacked it on to a procedure that is far from sure of the desired result. Pavlov suggests that eventually the two definitions will become one. If you say extinction about a behavior, I think dinosaurs. Voila – a functional misconception is formed. Now a behavior analyst can imply that they did something that made a behavior go away, even though it didn’t go anywhere. What would extinction mean if intact, functional dinosaur eggs were everywhere, just waiting to hatch? At best you could say that dinosaurs have become dormant, but extinct? Nope.

The Real Intent:
The process called extinction has nothing to do with making a behavior go away. It never did. The world where it was used was the “operant chamber” – a box that included only the mechanics necessary to count how many times a pigeon pecked a key or a rat pressed a lever. Extinction actually describes a return to an arbitrary baseline. It does not mean the absence of the behavior. If you put a rat in a box, reinforce it for pressing a lever and then leave for a three week v
skinner_boxacation, the rat will become extinct before the behavior does. That poor little starving rat is going to press that lever with its last burst of energy. He has no other way to get food. It’s a rigged game. If you allowed the rat a single other behavior – like escape – it would abandon lever pressing and go do something else. If you allowed the rat to move to another chamber where the lever still paid off, it would move and get fat. The only way the behavioral definition of extinction works is in complete confinement where the animal has no ability to use its full repertoire to solve problems. Rats scurry, pigeons fly. They can do neither in a “Skinner Box.”

They Fly in the Ointment: Real life.
Life on planet Earth requires adaptation to changing events. If your water hole dries up you have to move. That is why dolphins in tourist feeding pools swim from person to person. Once one person is tapped out the dolphin “behaves” in a way that gets more food. Pigeons in the park do the same thing. The fly from place to place to get what they need. Pigeons in operant chambers aren’t allowed to fly. Flying behavior is punished by the walls of the chamber. Yes, punished. They are no different than Alexander Dumas character, Edmond Dantes in the book, The Count of Monte Cristo. He was confined in a dungeon for ten years. Like all freedom loving creatures, Dantes tunneled away from his cell to try to escape. If operant chambers were made of cardboard, mice and rats would chew their way out, the same way they create mouse-holes in walls. If we examined Edmond Dantes behavior in his dungeon the term extinction would never come up. If rats and pigeons had a way to escape their fate they would use their natural abilities to get out of their pristine plastic and metal dungeons. Their behavior in that austere world has little to nothing to do with real life.

A Diversion That Explains the Issue:
Now that we’ve poked a hole in the concept of behavioral extinction I would like to suggest a motive for using a word that doesn’t actually describe what it’s supposed to. If you say extinction you don’t have to use the “P” word, punishment. From the mid-1950’s behavior analysts have held consistently to an opposition to investigating or using punishment. They have created numerous objections to punishment and use a biased view of behavior that focuses almost exclusively on reinforcement – so much so that they don’t even say ‘positive’ when referring to positive reinforcement, they assume it. The term ‘negative reinforcement’ is rarely used because it refers to aversive control. At the 2015 Association for Behavior Ana
lysis conference there will be about 1500 total presentations. None of them will discuss punishment as a valid behavioral tool. In 2009, there were ten – none presented by academics. From a ratio of 150:1 they have gone to a ratio of 1500:0. If that does not display a bias I don’t know what would.

(As an aside, I believe that science should investigate nature objectively. Because of the overwhelming bias within behavior science you will note that much of my writing is about punishment. I use punishment in my work very skillfully, without harmful side effects and with great effect. About 5% or less of what I do includes punishment as a component in creating behavioral solutions. By merely asking for equal time for this incredibly important topic, I am routinely vilified for being pro-punishment. All of my work advancing the use of positive reinforcement is canceled out by merely presenting information about how to use punishment safely, effectively and humanely. That is the result of an ideological opposition to examining behavior objectively. I do not happen to be an ideologue. I save lives with whatever means are most likely to achieve that end. There are others who cannot say that. Take a look at this post for a real-world example. http://clickandtreat.com/wordpress/?p=258)

If you think that I am making this up it is easy to check. It is also a theme that has been nagging at behavior analysis for a very long time but has never been addressed by behavior analysts. Consider Nate Azrin, Phd. – a pioneer of behavior analysis who studied in Skinner’s lab and had this to say about the Harvard “Rat Lab”.

” B. F. Skinner’s published views on punishment were well known at the time of my arrival in September 1953 at Harvard University, which I attended for the sole purpose of studying under Skinner. He had coauthored some studies of punishment earlier with W.K. Estes, but had devoted virtually all of his other animal research to the study of positive reinforcement. He was opposed to the use of punishment to influence human behavior, a view strongly expressed in his books Science and Human Behavior (1953) and Walden Two (1948), and indeed shared generally by psychology at large.

My own view at the time was that the strong opinions and ethical views regarding punishment had prevented the serious study of that process to the same extent that was true of positive reinforcement. I believed that punishment deserved more study; more specifically I believed that such study should address some of the same factors, such as the schedule of presentations, as had been found by Skinner to be so important with positive reinforcement.” – Nate Azrin, JEAB, 2002, 77, 373-392 Number 3 (May)


Does this kid look happy? Is resistant aggression a harmful side effect of negative punishment? If so, why is it recommended by behavior analysts as a routine go-to to make a behavior “extinct”?

And now we get to the point. Behavior analysts have a term for withdrawing reinforcement that decreases or stops a behavior. It’s called negative punishment. The reason they use the term extinction is because they don’t want to use the “P” word. The two concepts are identical. Remove something desired and a behavior decreases. This isn’t a matter of convenience, it’s a matter of ideology. They oppose the use of punishment but use it. The walls of the operant chamber punish escape and the free movement of the imprisoned animal. If you object to the use of the word “imprisoned” I’ll remind you of it’s meaning.

Prison: : a place or situation from which you cannot escape
Imprison: to put in or as if in prison : confine

(Gee, it doesn’t sound so humane when you realize that an operant chamber is an analog to a prison – but it is. If you wanted to learn all about human behavior would you start in a prison and work outward? Would you look at normal first and then examine subdivisions? Would you confine your research to prisons, only, forever, and extrapolate your behavioral rules from that study alone? That’s what behavior analysts do.Their model is the Arizona Territorial Prison of the 1880’s. They have never gone beyond it except in their imagination.)ImInnocent2

Another Punishment Reality: Time-outs
Putting a child in a time-out is designed to punish a behavior – but they don’t call it that. This is not a minor problem. The words we use shape our thinking. If you intentionally avoid using the term punishment is means you are intentionally blocking your ability to understand or communicate the reality of the phenomenon. You will never be able to understand behavior if you lop off half of it and simply pretend it doesn’t exist. In the case of stopping unwanted behavior the logical choice is using active, “positive” punishment. Here’s an unassailable quote, again from Nate Azrin from a conversation I had with him a year before his death.

“Providing negative consequences is the fastest, most effective means of eliminating unwanted behavior. Far faster than developing stimulus control or teaching an alternate behavior.”

He could have added “far more effective than removing reinforcement.” It is time that extinction goes back to its original meaning and extinguish its use as a euphemism or distortion of reality

3 thoughts on “Extinction: Dinosaurs and Precise Language

  1. Another great post confirming common sense and logical thoughts. I hear of some trying to apply the concept of extinction to minor aggression problems and I immediatly start to worry. I have a huge bias towards using +R but I also have to be aware that punishment will be part of my training process and will be very personal to each individual dog.

    Thank you again for your posts.

  2. Do you suppose the lack of punishment within our society is a consequence of culture (at least American) siding towards Hedonistic values?

  3. Brandon,
    I think you are exactly right. The move toward normative hedonism started as capitalism created great wealth and the US codified individual liberty. This created people whose lives are not directly connected to survival. They edit the world constantly based on appearances. EG: If you cut a dog’s vocal cords to stop it from barking and it can remain in its home the practice will be attacked as cruel. If you shock a dog to prevent it form ingesting socks after an emergency abdominal surgery you will be attacked as cruel. That both of these dogs are likely to die if you can’t stop the behavior is ignored. It is the intent of a human to cause “pain and fear” that is taboo. That pain and fear occur regularly in life is not considered a problem. For instance, if the hedonist accidentally steps on their dog’s foot they don’t imagine it will cause behavioral trauma – because the did it and they are loving, kind, humane people. Only “others” are barred from causing pain and suffering, even if the pain and suffering make the dog’s life better.

    And now the other shoe drops. If pain and suffering is a problem then hedonists need to attack a far more terrible activity that debarking dogs or shock collars to stop the ingestion of obstruction causing items. That terrible activity is called children’s cancer treatment. At children’s cancer hospitals they torture children unmercifully and often do nothing that prolongs the child’s life. Did you notice that when I used the word “torture” it causes and involuntary flinch? Hedonists always exaggerate to extremes to coerce people into following their beliefs. As they have no logical reason to worship pleasure and avoid pain they must silence anyone who reveals that the Emperor is naked. Ironically the hedonist who hates coercion is the first to use it, viciously, against anyone who would question their religious fervor.

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