An extinction burst is a concept from behavioral psychology. It involves the concept of elimination of a behavior by refusing to reinforce it.
The best example of this is a child's tantrum. Parents react to tantrums, which is why they often work, but the point of the tantrum is primarily attention. So when the parent reacts, it reinforces the tantrum and increases the frequency of it. What many parents fail to understand is that even a spank or yelling is still attention and still helps to reinforce the tantrum.
What is generally very effective about reducing tantrums is not attention, but a complete dearth of it. As difficult as it is to do so, the tantrum will generally go away once the attention is removed.
But first there is the extinction burst.
The extinction burst is basically what happens when the tantrum's not working any longer-- it actually gets worse for a time before it fades away. If you've ever seen kids throwing a tantrum, you've probably seen this -- some more informed parents will let the tantrum go and they don't actually look like good parents when doing it-- they look kind of mean and uncaring, but it's often the right thing to do despite appearances.
So what happens is that the kid just starts ramping up that tantrum-- thinking "I just need to try harder." And sometimes this works-- the parent relents, gives the attention (which may be yelling or a slap, but it's still attention) and the kid gets rewarded for the tantrum and gets rewarded for making the tantrum worse.
I want to reiterate that the tricky part of all this is that it's hard to do the right thing here. And in most cases, the right thing is to ignore it. So the problem is twofold:
- How can I be sure that ignoring it is the right thing?
- Even if I'm sure, how do I find the resilience do do it?
Unfortunately, the answer to both is "not easily." Ignoring it is often the right thing, but in some cases, the tantrums are not there in order to get attention but masking something more serious. You still need to listen to your kid and pay attention, even if your kid is being a major pain. That doesn't mean you give in to the kid's demands or react inappropriately, but you do need to understand the little hellspwan, whether you like it or not.
The second? Well that really just takes strength of conviction, which doesn't always come easy. It's also a lot harder when there is more than one parent and one's not so good at handling this. The weak link can cause all sorts of problems.
Kids, as a rule, are smarter than we give them credit for. Not all kids, of course. I mean, yes, there are Lisa Simpsons out there, but there are also Ralph Wiggums. But I'm talking about how most kids in general, are not stupid-- they learn their world and they know how to work it to their advantage, so they'll take any opportunity they can find to get what they want, and if that means playing parents against one another, they'll do it in a heartbeat.
Because, really, it's not about morality or what's right at that point in their lives. It's all about them. That's not their fault. They're just not mature enough to understand morality yet.
And sometimes the hard lesson they need to learn is that just because their parents love them doesn't mean their parents will do what they want, and just because they choose to start screaming and shouting in the middle of a Kay-Bee toy aisle in front of everyone doesn't mean they get that new toy they've been craving ever since they first saw it twenty-seven seconds ago.
One of the problems with extinction is the inability to know when you're truly extinguishing a behavior as opposed to letting it fester and grow in the background. Why, for example, would Orly Tatz at this point be basically a joke to the few people who know her name while Sarah Pain continues to get attention and coverage?
The sad fact is that there's no way to always tell-- when the tea party first started going off the deep end before HCR was passed, I advocated for allowing them to ride out their extinction burst, letting them get it out of their system before acceptance.
Obviously, if that did work, it was on a larger arc than I realized, and there's plenty of evidence to suggest I had that completely wrong.
Let's take another example: The Westboro Baptist Church thrives off of attention and interest, and we're pretty much ready to give them that whenever they come calling. I remember when no one knew who they were, back when no one cared about them because they were only going after gay people and not soldiers. I think their problem was that they weren't getting enough attention to thrive when they were just expressing a more extreme type of homophobia than the rest of the country so they had to escalate to the point of pissing off pretty much everybody. But imagine what would happen if we simply ignored them and treated them like the powerless anachronistic fools that they are? Would they be able to do much of anything to anybody?
Now, part of the problem (and we see this with Sarah Palin) is that some reinforcements happen without our participation and we can't really control them. If you are the parent who's always refusing to reinforce the child's tantrums but there is another caregiver for whom the tantrums work, you can't actually extinguish the behavior. There needs to be agreement. So when we advocate for ignoring Sarah Palin completely, but she still has an internal reward system that we can't control, we can't actually stop her by ignoring her because she gets enough attention (and money; let's not forget the money) to sustain her existence as a political hack and sloganeering performance artist (did I mention the money?).
I don't have a solution to this or clear answers to these questions-- but I do think we need to have a better understanding of the psychology that fuels or fails to fuel some of these movements and individuals. The only reason the Westboro Baptist Church is known at all is because people choose to cover them. Palin's a different story, but in order to understand whether or not she, like Michele Malkin, Randall Terry or Ann Coulter, is worth attacking or addressing at all, we need to understand the power of the extinction burst, what it means, and when it can be applied.