Disclaimer | By: Gavin Cosgrave | Reading Time: 10.9 minutes

Extinction Procedures

"Extinction as a procedure occurs when reinforcement of a previously reinforced behaviour is discontinued; as a result, the frequency of that behaviour decreases in the future."
- Cooper, Heron, & Heward (2007, p. 457)

What is an Extinction Procedure?

An extinction procedure is essentially an intervention that makes a behaviour occur less often or stop occurring altogether.

Extinction procedures apply the "principle of extinction" which proposes that because behaviours occur for a reason - they get us things we want - if we stop getting what we want after we engage in a certain behaviour then that behaviour will eventually stop occurring because it no longer serves any purpose for us.

Said another way, any behaviour we engage in will become "extinct" (stop occurring) if it no longer has a function.

Applying the principle of extinction to implement an extinction procedure means that you would deliberately stop allowing a behaviour - a “target behaviour” - to obtain the reinforcing outcome(s) that the behaviour has always previously gotten. This procedure then makes the behaviour ineffective and so it will occur less and less until it eventually stops altogether.

You could describe it as a procedure where you would stop giving the behaviour “what it wants” and what it has always gotten in the past.

An Extinction Procedure Example

In the playground during break time at school, Brian screams and shouts when he is left alone for more than a few minutes. After he screams and shouts the teachers have always gone over to him and asked if he was ok and what was wrong.

The reason Brian engages in this behaviour (the function of the behaviour) is to obtain social attention from his teachers; so this behaviour is currently being positively reinforced.

If the teachers decided to no longer go over to Brian to give him attention when he screamed, they would be applying an extinction procedure to the behaviour because they are no longer reinforcing the behaviour by “giving it what it wants”.

As previously mentioned, when a behaviour no longer gets what it wants (no longer obtains the reinforcing consequences that it used to obtain) it will reduce in frequency until it eventually stops occurring because the behaviour now serves no purpose.

So in the case of Brian, because his teachers no longer go over to him when he screams and shouts, this behaviour no longer gets him what he wants. You could say that the screaming and shouting “doesn’t work” anymore and so it will eventually reduce until it stops and becomes “extinct”.

Important Note #1

Take note that this is an extremely simplified description of an extinction based procedure. It is generally recommended that extinction is never used as the only procedure in place to reduce the occurrence of a behaviour (Miltenberger, 2008).

When it is used alone, Cooper et al (2007, p.467) state that ‘with few exceptions, most applications of extinction as a singular intervention have focused on important but relatively minor behaviour problems (e.g. disruptive classroom behaviour, tantrums, excessive noise, mild forms of aggression)’.

Important Note #2

It would also be important not to lose sight of the fact that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with what Brian wanted. All that was "wrong" was that his method of getting what he wanted wasn't as adaptive as it could be.

An intervention that would teach Brian an adaptive response to replace the screaming and shouting would likely be used in conjunction with the extinction procedure (Cooper, et al, 2007). For example, teaching him interpersonal skills to ask his teachers to come over to him or to ask a friend to play with him instead.

Extinction and Behavioural Functions

Extinction procedures are commonly thought to be interventions that only ever involve ignoring behaviours (Miltenberger, 2008); as in the example of Brian above when the teachers decided to ignore his screaming and shouting.

While a procedure that leads to a behaviour being ignored can be an extinction based procedure, it is important to identify the function of the behaviour through a functional assessment. This is because being ignored (being left alone) could be the outcome the person wants from engaging in the behaviour in the first place.

If the function of the behaviour was to end up being ignored by others then instead of implementing an extinction procedure you would actually be implementing a reinforcement based procedure and inadvertently strengthening the behaviour, meaning it will occur more frequently in the future and will certainly not become "extinct". To illustrate this point we'll use the example below.

Jane has started in a new school and the teachers have begun to notice that during break time she sometimes screams and shouts when a teacher goes anywhere near her while she is playing on the swings. The teachers decide to ignore her as they think she’s doing it to get attention from them when they get near her and they don’t want to reinforce that type of behaviour.

However, Jane does this precisely because the teachers leave her alone to play on the swings by herself. In Jane’s old school, when she started to play on the swings a teacher would come over to push her on them, but Jane didn’t want to be pushed. Jane quickly learned that by screaming or shouting the teacher would leave her alone and so the behaviour of screaming and shouting was reinforced (the behaviour was negatively reinforced by the removal of the teacher which was a good outcome for Jane).

In Jane’s new school, because the teachers continue to ignore her when she engages in those behaviours, they are actually continuing to reinforce those behaviours and are actually part of the reason the behaviours continue to occur. So they are not implementing an extinction procedure even though they think they are; this is why identifying the function of the behaviour is so important.

If a functional assessment was carried out, it would be identified that before engaging in the behaviour there is a teacher near Jane and after the behaviour has occurred the teacher goes away from her, and that the behaviour doesn’t occur in any other situation (note that this is a very simplified description of a conclusion from a functional assessment and is done just for the sake of this article).

This functional assessment would lead to a hypothesis that the reason the behaviour is occurring is so that Jane can be left alone (ignored) while playing on the swings and this hypothesis may be tested using a functional analysis.

Important Note #3

It’s important to note that in this example, as in the previous example with Brian, we are not saying that there is anything wrong with Jane wanting to be left alone while playing on the swings. In fact, she would be perfectly entitled to want to be left alone to do this and, as previously mentioned, if an extinction based procedure was implemented it would more than likely be used with a procedure that would increase an adaptive response to replace the maladaptive screaming.

For example, Jane might be taught to ask to be left alone to play on the swings or if she was non-verbal she could be given a card with the words “I’d like to be left alone please” written on it and be taught to give it to a teacher when she wanted to be left alone. So the outcome for Jane would be the same (being left alone to play on the swing) but her method of obtaining what she wanted would be more adaptive.

Extinction of Positively Reinforced Behaviours

Positive reinforcement occurs when a behaviour gets a person something they didn’t have before engaging in that behaviour.

For example, Brian’s screaming was positively reinforced by the teachers giving him social attention; before screaming he had no attention but after screaming he got social attention, so his behaviour of screaming was positively reinforced by getting social attention from the teachers.

When a positively reinforced behaviour is put on extinction the “thing” the person obtains from engaging in that behaviour is no longer given to them. In Brian’s case, an extinction procedure would be in place if he was no longer given the social attention when he screamed and shouted.

Extinction of Negatively Reinforced Behaviours

Negative reinforcement occurs when a behaviour gets a person away from something that was already present before the behaviour or gets that “something” to go away from them.

For example, Jane’s screaming was negatively reinforced by the removal of the teacher; just before she screamed a teacher came near her and after she screamed the teacher went away, so her behaviour of screaming was negatively reinforced by getting the teacher to go away from her.

When a negatively reinforced behaviour is put on extinction the “thing” the person wants to get away from (or the “thing” they want to go away from them) continues to remain present after the behaviour. In Jane’s case, an extinction procedure would be in place if the teacher would not move away from her after she screams and shouts.

Characteristics of the Extinction Process

Extinction Burst

Sometimes a behaviour that is being targeted by an extinction procedure won’t initially begin to decrease and will instead do the complete opposite and actually increase. When this occurs it is known as an “extinction burst” and can be defined as ‘a temporary increase in the frequency, duration, or magnitude of the target response’ (Lerman, Iwata, & Wallace, 1999).

As an example, consider Brian and the screaming and shouting he engaged in to gain attention from his teachers. When the extinction procedure is first implemented and Brian is alone for a few minutes he begins to scream and shout. When Brian engaged in this behaviour prior to the extinction procedure his teachers would have come over to him straight away and given him the social attention he wanted, but this time his teachers don’t come over to him...

…this could be quite unexpected for Brian so he may consciously, or unconsciously (Miltenberger, 2008), feel he has to try harder to obtain the teachers’ attention. To try harder he shouts more than he normally would (increased frequency), he shouts for a longer period of time than he normally would (increased duration) and he shouts louder than he normally would (increased magnitude/intensity).

Within an Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) programme, data would be continuously recorded on Brian's screaming (the "target behaviour") and this data would be graphed each day so it could be visually analysed to identify if the extinction procedure is working.

The image below presents an example of how an extinction burst may appear on a graph that is recording how many minutes of screaming occur each day both before the extinction procedure was implemented (baseline) and then during its implementation.


A graph depicting an extinction burst.
A graph illustrating an extinction burst.

Cooper et al (2007) recommend that those implementing the extinction procedure be aware that this extinction burst may occur and that they should continue to withhold whatever it is that previously reinforced the behaviour.

In fact, they state that ‘extinction bursts usually suggest that the reinforcer(s) maintaining the problem behaviour was successfully identified, indicating there is a good chance of an effective intervention’ (p. 462).

Novel Behaviours

Novel behaviours may also occur as a result of an extinction procedure being in place. A novel behaviour is a behaviour that the person would not have engaged in before while engaging in the targeted behaviour. Often these novel behaviour can be aggressive or more emotional (Miltenberger, 2008).

For example, if an extinction procedure was implemented for Jane’s screaming and shouting she may engage in the novel emotional behaviour of crying - something she had never done before in an attempt to get her teacher to go away. For Brian, who tried to get his teachers’ attention by screaming and shouting, he might engage in the novel behaviour of stamping his feet on the group or kicking something - both behaviours he had never engaged in previously in an effort to gain attention from his teachers.

Just as the awareness of the extinction burst is important to the success of an extinction based procedure, it is just as important that professionals are aware that novel behaviours may occur (Miltenberger, 2008).

Spontaneous Recovery

Spontaneous recovery is the term used to describe the ‘tendency for the behaviour to occur again in situations that are similar to those in which it occurred before extinction’ (Miltenberger, 2008, p. 106).

In other words, even though an extinction procedure is successful and a target behaviour is “extinguished”, the extinguished behaviour may (completely out of the blue) occur again in the future even though it has not been occurring up until that point.

Cooper et al (2007, p. 463) point out that spontaneous recovery ‘is short-lived and limited if the extinction procedure remains in effect’ and that those implementing or involved in the extinction procedure are aware of this phenomenon in case they inadvertently reinforce the behaviour and/or assume that the procedure is no longer working.

Extinction Procedures Don’t Prevent a Behaviour from Occurring

During an extinction procedure the target behaviour isn’t prevented from occurring in the first place (Cooper, et al 2007). In the case of Brian and his screaming, there is nothing actually stopping him from screaming and shouting, and he could continue to engage in the behaviour even when the extinction procedure is implemented.

To prevent the behaviour from occurring in the first place a completely outlandish (and completely unethical) method would be to have Brian’s teeth glued together so he couldn’t open his mouth to make any noise. Of course this would never happen and we’re using this example just to make the point. All that happens during an extinction procedure is that the outcome (what happens after the behaviour) the person wants from their behaviour is no longer provided to them; in Brian’s case, the attention he wants from screaming and shouting is no longer provided to him.


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