Extinction: The Other Way to Make Behavior Disappear

There are two ways to make a behavior go away: punishment and extinction. Yesterday this blog focused on punishment, giving someone something that he or she doesn’t want, or taking away something he or she does want. Today’s blog explains extinction, the other way to make a behavior disappear.

When I hear the word extinction, I think Gary Larson’s brilliant take on what happened to dinosaurs.

But from a behavioral definition, extinction is a consequence where the performer of a behavior gets nothing for his efforts. So after a time, the person gives up. Whereas punishment makes a behavior stop immediately, extinction takes times, kind of death via attention starvation.

There are two types of extinction. First, there is intentional extinction which is a fancy way of saying planned ignoring. It’s as simple as it sound: you decide  to ignore a behavior and give it no attention. Over time, that behavior will go away.

I used planned ignoring with my kids when they were little. As a parent, I taught them to not interrupt me when I was in a conversation with someone. Instead, I taught them to stand quietly next to me and to place their hand on my arm to signal that they would like to say something. Then I would politely pause my conversation and give the child who stood next to me my full attention.

But guess what? This great idea of mine didn’t work very well. Oh, it worked fine in practice sessions, times when no one else was around. But when I’d get into  a live conversation with a friend or neighbor, there was no stand quietly next to me sort of thing going on. Instead, there was a “Dad. DAd. DAD! DAAAAAD! DAADDDDDY!!!!” until my brain snapped and I had no choice but to pay attention to my child or go insane.

Then it dawned on  me that my concept and my children were fine. The problem was my lack of follow through. See, I planned to ignore them UNTIL THEY COMPLIED with what I asked them to do, to NOT interrupt. However, when they drove me crazy, I caved. I stopped ignoring them and started paying attention to them.

Armed with the knowledge that I was the problem, I redoubled my efforts to ignore my children whenever they’d interrupt me. Over time they learn to stand quietly next to me and to place their hand on my arm to signal that they would like to say something.

At work, have you ever decided to ignore someone who sends out a barrage of meaningless emails or copies you on every communication they touch? How about the person who wants to talk your ear off and prevents you from getting work done? Or the chronic complainer who needs you to listen so he or she can tell you how bad life is? Or the proud parent who wants show you 47 pictures of their precious little ball of fat wearing cute outfits when you’re trying to prepare for a meeting? Now you know that those times you ignored someone whose behavior annoyed you is called extinction.

Earlier I said that extinction works via attention starvation, and I also said that there are two types of extinction. The second type is unintentional extinction.

Let’s say your grade school child brings home wonderful school papers. You say nothing because you’re busy with your own life, distracted. Over time, your child stops bringing home papers to show you, assuming you don’t care.

In middle school, your child brings home average report cards. You say nothing because you never noticed your child made better grades or was capable of more. To the child, it seems that no matter he does, you don’t seem to care much.

In high school, the child ends up getting in trouble at school, acting up to get attention. You might yell and ask “What’s wrong with you?” But it’s kind of late for that because your child has already come to the conclusion that you don’t care. And besides, your child might have decided that negative attention is less painful than no attention. So rebellion sets in. And what’s rebellion? A cry for attention.

This happens at work when you, as a supervisor, spend all of your time with the squeaky wheel, the problem employee, instead of with the employee who’s doing a great job. You’re not a bad person, and you really do appreciate the work that your good employees do. But when your problem employees get all of your attention and energy, your superstars might become less bright. Before long, the bright employees grow dimmer and dimmer until they, too, become problem employees.

See why it’s unintentional? You don’t mean to stop your children from bringing home good grades or demonstrating positive behaviors. And you don’t want to convert your superstars into employees needing disciplinary action. But when you are too busy or distracted to notice and reinforce desired behaviors, you might be encouraging those positive things to go away.

Punishment and extinction stop behaviors. Don’t get good at either one of those things. Houseplants don’t grow towards the shadows. Neither do people. If you wish to have your children, your employees and your friends respect you and learn from you, stay out of the business of DON’T, CUT IT OUT and STOP THAT.

Tomorrow’s topic: negative reinforcement, the consequence that controls behavior after punishment and extinction.

0 Comments Add yours

  1. Joanne says:

    I have question. Do you think it’s effective to use extinction from one adult to another? I’m not kidding either.

    1. scottcarbonara says:

      Hi Joanne. Yes, I do think extinction works for adults just as well as with children. But just because something is effective doesn’t mean it should be used. Between healthy, emotionally mature adults, I would do this before adding extinction (aka, ignoring) to your toolkit: full disclosure. Tell the person that you have tried to resolve what you consider an inappropriate or undesirable behavior in him. You don’t wish to nag. So starting now, instead of repeating myself when you do _______, I will ignore it. I won’t give it any attention. I want you to know because I don’t want you to confuse my ignoring with apathy, cruelty, or cluelessness. When you see me not reacting, know that it’s because I wish to have a positive relationship with you, one that does not include (the negative behavior).

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