Extinction, really? is it?

I tend to struggle with the concept of behavioural extinction. Despite its place in many textbooks and journals, it doesn’t sit well in my mind.  

A note for the non training theory geeks: In this context, punishment simply means to reduce the likelihood of something reoccurring, negative means to take something away, and environment refers to anything outside of the individual.

The textbooks I’ve read agree that extinction occurs when a previously reinforced behaviour no longer elicits reinforcement, thereby decreasing the likelihood of the behaviour (apart from extinction bursts) until it is eventually extinct.

The textbooks also agree that negative punishment is the process of removing a stimulus which results in the behaviour being less likely to occur in future.

What’s the difference?  The two things people are quick to point out on hearing my difficulties are;

  • The literature on extinction usually infers that it’s about previously reinforced behaviour. Negative punishment literature doesn’t emphasise this point.  However, I don’t see a difference here because the whole function of operant behaviour is to seek appetitives and avoid aversives, thereby, exercising some degree of control over the environment. The behaviour in both contingencies has been previously reinforced either intentionally or unintentionally. If it’s not been previously reinforced then how do we explain it occurring at all?
  • Negative punishment is contingent on something being removed, whereas the extinction contingency is based on nothing of significance changing in the environment. How can you have no significant change in the environment? The behaviour has been previously reinforced and now when it occurs, NOTHINGNESS!  Isn’t that in itself a change in the environment? Isn’t the passing of time a significant change in the environment? If there is nothing of significance happening, then how can we say it effects change?  Something significant must be happening! Extinction is to remove or block the previously reinforcing stimuli.  To my mind it is clearly negative punishment. Let’s assume that  you can have no significant change in the environment, we’re still left with removing something the animal wanted versus not giving something they expected, is there any real difference?

Furthermore, has the behaviour really undergone extinction or merely been punished and therefore less likely to occur in future?  Spontaneous recovery of the behaviour may occur through processes such as disinhibition, reinstatement, reacquisition or renewal, so it’s not really extinct is it?  We don’t see Spontaneous recovery of the Dodo. Now that’s extinction! To my mind, extinction is simply negative punishment in a different hat. 

By its very nature extinction will evoke stress (evident by extinction bursts), when there are stress free and kinder methods available to us. Let’s not dress it up as something it isn’t.


I believe the nearest thing to behavioural extinction is through the natural process of change whereby a particular behaviour stops being appetitive and therefore loses its reinforcing ability. For example, 50 year olds don’t enjoy sitting on their mother’s knee as they did during early childhood, but the change was almost certainly gradual.

Shay Kelly is the author of Dog training and behavor: a guide for everyone and Canine Enrichment: the book your dog needs you to read

2 thoughts on “Extinction, really? is it?

  1. Love this and thanks for sharing your thought process on it!

    Personally I always think of it like a graph where we divide 1 by infinity and the line continues to approach zero but never truly does. An animal may to try something out to see if it gets a desired outcome in an infinite number of scenarios before truly giving up (and maybe it never will truly give up especially if it hasn’t learned an easier more reliable way to get its desired outcome) so in my mind that best explains it. Curious as to your thoughts?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s