The Usefulness of Operant Extinction and Conditioning in Reducing Operant Behaviour

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Recalling on his primary research, Skinner (1956) explicated the unexpected and accidental finding that led to the birth of operant extinction curves. The pellet distributor on his apparatus blocked, meaning that the pressing of the lever was left unreinforced. The collective record gathered under this process was in fact systematic and orderly. When reinforcement was removed, the pressing of the lever did not cease instantly. It persisted for a while longer, declining, while the reveal of the new contingency continued. Skinner reported then that the account was of “pure behaviour” (p.226), incessant and unaffected by the delivery of food or consumption.

Excitedly, he also educed the discovery of the initial primary extinction curve in which he compares to Pavlov stating he had made contact with him at last (p.226). Not only does his unpredicted discovery cohort with Pavlov’s seminal work, it had evolved to be one of the most renowned and concrete effects in the analysis within behaviour analysis. Moreover, as stated by Lattal, St. Peter & Escobar (2007), its impact has significant generalisation. Subsiding in basic and applied research and in practice, not only is it found in operant conditioning it is also a major part of classical conditioning. Furthermore, it is prevalent to animals across the empire having been accounted in invertebrates (e.g., Abramson, Armstrong, Feinman, & Feinman, 1988) to Homosapiens (p.77) However, the results obtained from extinction are rather complex and dimensional.

Lerman and Iwata in 1996 stated that enabling more effective treatments for behaviour analysts, functional behaviour assessments allowed for a clearer distinction between procedural variations of extinction (ignoring) and the functional variations of extinction (withholding maintaining reinforcers). Thus, and more precisely, procedures for extinction derive from three main forms which are connected to behaviour maintained by positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement and automatic reinforcement.

To begin with, a study undertaken by Williams in 1959 on a 21 month old baby, explicates how behaviours preserved by positive reinforcement are situated on extinction when such behaviours do not create the reinforcer. This particular child had tyrant like behaviour and was seriously ill for the first 18 months of his life but had recovered to good health before the study was carried out. The child constantly demanded attention primarily around bedtime and reacted angrily by throwing tantrums when the parents did not afford attention towards the boy. A parent would also spend up to two hours waiting in the room of the child until he had fallen asleep. Although Williams did not specify where the tantrums evolved from, it is easy to render some justification. As the child had been very ill for the most part of his life, crying was the signifier to his experienced pain in which the crying could, in turn, be reinforced by the attention awarded by the boy’s parents. Even when the child regained good health, the crying remained and embedded itself as a high frequency behaviour. The parents, who realised the crying began at bedtime, attempted in ignoring the child’s cry. However, the crying increased, and his behaviour worsened causing him to exert new extreme behaviours by displaying outbursts in tantrums. In turn, the parents succumbing to these tantrums reverted back to the room. Consequently, the parents then determined that the continuance of their attention was the cause to this behaviour and that they needed to apply new methods in controlling it. Therefore, they executed the extinction procedure. The parents calmly put the child to bed and vacated the room and recorded the time in which the cries occurred. Over time the 45-minute tantrum decreased and on the 10th occasion the child in fact smiled when the parents left the bedroom.

Although the tantrums subsided for a week, when an Aunt had put the child to bed they had recommenced and therefore the aunt stayed in the room until the boy fell asleep. The tantrums exited the same intensity as the earlier ones had and therefore had to be reduced a further time. In the study’s awarded extinction curve, the curve resembles the first elimination of attention. The length of the tantrums was to some extent larger during the second removal of parent’s attention but resolved to zero by the ninth session.

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Behaviours upheld by negative reinforcement are positions on extinction when those behaviours fail to generate an elimination of the aversive stimulus. Thus, denoting that the individual is unable to avoid the aversive. According to Cooper, Heron & Heward, this is also known as 'escape extinction” (p.459). As a behavioural mechanism, Dawson and colleagues (2003), facilitated a commendable example of exhausting escape extinction. They employed the usage of escape extinction in order to record the diminishing food refusal by a three-year-old girl named Mary. Mary partook in day programme as an effort to treat this. Health issues consisted of gastroesophageal reflex, delayed gastric emptying and gastrostomy tube dependence and more. She rejected food by moving her head away from an offered mouthful, covering her face or placing her hand on the spoon or arm of the therapist. The escape extinction process shadowed 12 events of food refusal. If Mary rejected a mouthful of food, the therapist would hold the spoon near her mouth until she gave in. Upon expelling the bite, the food was then re-given until she had swallowed. Through this technique, Mary’s rejections did not yield an escape from the food. Following ten swallowed bites of food, the session ended by the therapist. Within 12 primary standard sessions, Mary did not accept any food. However, following just two practices of escape extinction, her food acceptance reached full compliance.

Sensory extinction occurs when behaviours upheld by automatic reinforcement are positioned on extinction by concealing or removing the sensory consequence (Rincover, 1978). Certain behaviours generate natural sensory effects which uphold behaviour. Rincover (1981) explained this by stating that a naturally occurring sensory effect is a stimulus that “sounds good, looks good, tastes good, smells good, feels good to the touch or the movement itself is good” (p.1). However, this extinction connected with automatic reinforcement is not an advisable treatment for problem behaviours that are sustained by social outcomes or negative reinforcement. Rincover, Cook, Peoples and Packard (1979) and Rincover (1981) provided many examples of applying extinction with automatic reinforcement one being a child where a child continually flipped a light switch on and off. The visual sensory outcome was abolished by disengaging the light switch. Another example being a child formed auditory stimulation by a constant spinning of an object such as a plate on a table. The surface of the table he used for spinning was then carpeted and this concealed the auditory stimulation from his plate spinning.

Primarily, extinction generates a gradual decrease in behaviour. Nevertheless, when reinforcement is eradicated abruptly several unreinforced responses may occur. This gradual reduction in response frequency is usually sporadic, gradually rising in pauses amid responses (Keller & Schoenfeld, 1950/1995). Cooper and colleagues (2007), maintained that this technique is problematic due to the early increase frequency and scale and the gradual lessening of behaviour. For example, parents are typically reluctant to ignore tantrum behaviour for enough time as tantrums deem to be relatively aversive to parents (p.461).

A typical effect of extinction procedure is an abrupt increase in the frequency of the response after the elimination of the positive, negative or automatic reinforcement. The phrase “extinction burst” is used to recognize this initial increase in response frequency. Subsequently, Lerman, Iwata and Wallace (1999) described extinction burst as “an increase in responding during any of the first three treatment sessions above that observed during all of the last five baseline sessions or all of baseline” (p.3). Although well recorded in basic research, the procedure is not well recorded in applied research. When described, the bursts remain for very little sessions showing no major problems. Affording data on an extinction burst, Goh and Iwata in1994 documented how Steve, a 40-year-old man, with severe mental disabilities had been admitted for assessment due to harm such as head banging. A functional analysis proved that the harm was a product of escaping from instructions. Thus, Goh and Iwata applied extinction in order to prevent further injury. Although applied researchers generally do not report on extinctions bursts, they do, however, transpire in applied settings. Problem behaviours degenerate in extinction process before showing improvement. For example, teachers would expect an initial increase in disruption during extinction. Subsequently, these behaviours would start to decrease and arrive back to the stage of pre reinforcement. Furthermore, and following from the extinction burst, an increase in the vigour or power of the response initially may consequently arise in the extinction procedure. For example, parents who start ignoring a child’s night-time tantrums may find an increase in loudness of crying and force of kicking before the tantrums start to decline.

Throughout the course of extinction, a behaviour generally endures the declining trend until it arrives at an either pre-reinforced level or terminates completely. However, a frequent occurrence typically linked with extinction is the re-emergence of the behaviour even if it has reduced to its pre-reinforcement level or has totally ended. The term is commonly defined as “spontaneous recovery”. This means that the decreased behaviour during the extinction procedure reappears despite the fact that the behaviour does not generate reinforcement. Moreover, spontaneous recovery subsists only shortly if extinction is still applied.

Much of extinction’s uses as an intervention in a single format have concentrated on undoubtedly significant but rather small behavioural problems. Some include disrupting the class room, extreme noise making and minor aggression. However, a procedure of control for some extreme behaviours that could potentially put other individuals in danger or lead to damage of surrounding property needs to be executed humanitarianly and hastily as possible. Thus, this raises ethical issues and addressing this concern Pinkston, Reese, Le Blanc and Baer (1973) examined the effects of an extinction method that would prevent an individual from injuring himself or their victim. A tactic they used was that the attacker would be ignored but the victim was protected or sheltered from being attacked. Pinkston and colleagues proved the usefulness of a safe extinction technique by examining an aggressive preschool boy who would often choke, bite and kick classmates. In the preliminary condition, the teachers acknowledged child’s aggression the same way they had done formerly. This generally took the shape of verbal reprimands such as: ‘Cain, we do not do that here’, or ‘Cain, you can’t play here until you are ready to be a good boy’ (p.118). In the extinction process, the teachers merely ignored his aggressive behaviours. Upon attacking a classmate, instantly the teachers would attend to the other child in whom of which were comforted and offered a toy to play with. Moreover, Cain’s positive behaviours were noted and paid attention to. In turn, this was successful in the deduction of aggression. Ultimately, as Cooper, Heron & Heward (2007) state, exercising extinction obligates for a “sound, mature, humane and ethical professional judgement” (p.467).

In conclusion, and with the examples provided it is apparent that this procedure of behaviour has been exploited as effectual in numerous settings such as in the home and education. Furthermore, it applies itself in varying problem behaviours ranging from serious self-injury to minor disruptions. However, as outlined, operant extinction’s usefulness is based largely on the recognition of reinforcing consequences, identifying what they are and with a regular and consistent appliance of the principle. The utilisation of aversive stimuli is not necessary for the decrease of behaviour and it fails to offer a verbal or physical model of punishment that is targeted towards other individuals. Thus, and simply, extinction is the suppression of reinforcers. Deemed to be an effortless process, its application in certain settings can be rather difficult and does raise some ethical concerns.

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