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Extinction burst refers to the concept of eliminating a behavior by refusing to reinforce it. Learn more about extinction burst through examples, and then test your knowledge with a quiz after you complete this lesson.

Going Shopping With a Four-Year-Old

Imagine that you are a parent going grocery shopping with your four-year-old daughter. She starts to whine, so you hand her a chocolate candy bar. She eats the candy and is pleasant throughout the trip. The next time you take her to the grocery store, she whines again and you hand her another candy bar, which cheers her up. You and your daughter repeat this pattern every time you go to the grocery store until you begin to notice how much you are spending on candy for her. You finally decide to stop buying her candy bars.

The first and second trips that you refuse to buy a candy bar, your daughter whines and cries the entire time you are in the grocery store. During the third trip, you notice that she only cries when she sees the candy bars in the aisle as you leave the store. By the sixth trip, your daughter finally realizes that whining will not get her a chocolate bar, so she stops whining altogether. Your daughter’s temporary increase in whining when you decide to stop purchasing her chocolate candy bars is an example of extinction burst.

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The Extinction of Reinforced Behaviors

Reinforcement and extinction are two tools that are used to modify behaviors. A reinforcement is anything that strengthens or increases the frequency of behavior. Reinforcements (reinforcers) can be planned and intentional, such as praising a child for her good grades in order to motivate her to keep getting good grades, or they can be accidental, as in the example above.

By buying your child a candy bar every time she whined, you reinforced her whining even though your intention was only to calm her down. Your daughter knew that as long as she whined in the grocery store, she would receive a chocolate bar (which is why she whined every time you took her grocery shopping).One way in which you can decrease behavior is through extinction. When you remove a positive reinforcer that maintains a behavior that you want to eliminate, it is called extinction.

Extinction assumes that when the reinforcers are no longer present, the undesirable behavior will eventually cease. In the example, you stopped buying candy bars (removal of the positive reinforcer) in hopes that it would decrease your daughter’s whining (undesirable behavior).After six trips to the grocery store, you noticed that eventually your plan worked. Not buying candy bars decreased your daughter’s whining. However, when you first started using extinction, your daughter’s whining actually increased, which was the extinction burst described above. When you stopped giving her candy, she thought that maybe if she tried harder (whined more), that you would buy her candy. Her whining actually got worse for a short time before it went away.

Extinction bursts can sometimes be accompanied by aggressive or emotional behaviors. For example, the first time you decided not to get your child a candy bar, she may have become angry with you, resulting in her picking up an item in a grocery store and throwing it.Suppose that you were a psychologist researching reinforcement and extinction in rats. You first trained the rats so that every time they press a red button (behavior), they receive food (reinforcement). Eventually, the rats begin to associate the red button with food.

After a few weeks, you decide that you want to stop the rats from pushing the red button.You stop giving the rats food when they push the red button, since getting rid of the reinforcement will decrease the behavior (the rats pushing the red button). You notice that the rats start pushing the red button more often than they did before – another example of an extinction burst. After a while, they realize that pushing the red button will not bring them food, so they stop pushing.

Lesson Summary

When you decide to get rid of a behavior by no longer reinforcing it, you are using extinction. Before the behavior decreases, you may experience an extinction burst; that is, the behavior may temporarily increase before it goes away. The extinction burst may be accompanied by an emotional response or aggressive behavior.

So, the next time you take a child to a store and she has a tantrum, try ignoring it and see what happens. Though the tantrums may increase, they will go away in the end.

Learning Outcomes

This lesson on the extinction burst should prepare you to:

  • Define reinforcement, extinction, and extinction burst as they relate to psychology
  • Give an example of an extinction burst
  • Understand why extinction bursts occur

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