Skip to main content

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:

  1. How can I be sure that ignoring it is the right thing?
  2. 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.

Originally posted to Where the Waters Run Free on Sat Mar 12, 2011 at 12:37 PM PST.

Also republished by Mental Health Awareness, Teachers Lounge, and Community Spotlight.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  Large Societies and Markets Operate Oppositely to (26+ / 0-)

    traditional culture in many cases.

    Shunning for example is a severe punishment in the wild, can be a death sentence. But in big markets and societies, shunning by most of the community can be impossible to impose, and partial shunning can foster a nuturing environment where the misbehavior can build support, alliances and success experiences.

    This has been a problem with our understanding of fundamentalism for example for the 40 years since conservative money began mobilizing them to become political.

    Of course if there had been a public acknowledgment of the nature and prospects of fundamentalism, or the rightwing generally that's now impossible to deny, it would've called for appropriate response.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Sat Mar 12, 2011 at 01:09:18 PM PST

  •  Thanks for this diary (16+ / 0-)

    I was mainly interested in the kids tantrum part as a stay at home dad. I have gotten pretty good at ignoring my 4 year old daughter's tantrums, but the real problem is my 18 month old son thinks it is hilarious to throw a tantrum (literally) right next to his sister whenever she does.  

    I ignore them both, but they feed off of each other and give each other the attention they want.  At least now I understand why, and that I just need to keep my son away from my daughter when she starts up.

    All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident. - Schopenhauer

    by BlueberryTomatoSoup on Sat Mar 12, 2011 at 01:15:50 PM PST

    •  Or not (0+ / 0-)

      They will figure it out. Really. If there is any real danger, of course, you need to help. If the kids are just making noise, it's just noise.

      A group hug as things wind down may be helpful. :)


  •  Cultural Anthropology would call Tea Party (19+ / 0-)

    a Revitalization Movement.

    Revitalization Movement

    revitalization movement, political-religious movements promising deliverance from deprivation, the elimination of foreign domination, and a new interpretation of the human condition based on traditional cultural values, common in societies undergoing severe stress associated with colonial conquest and intense class or racial exploitation. A prominent example is the Ghost Dance of Native Americans, who believed that their ritual would cause ancestors and bison herds to return and white people to leave. Although a nonviolent form of protest, it ended with the massacre of over 200 Sioux men, women, and children by the U.S. army at Wounded Knee, S.Dak., in 1890. Cargo cults are another form of revitalization movement found in New Guinea and other parts of Melanesia, especially after the intense movements of armies through the area during World War II. Followers believe that local governments prevent their ancestors from delivering an abundance of European or American goods. Their rituals reflect their sense of economic marginalization, belief that the world capitalist economy behaves irrationally, and alienation from state-level politics. These movements are also referred to as nativistic, revivalistic, millenarian, or messianic.


    "We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children"

    by Lefty Coaster on Sat Mar 12, 2011 at 01:19:39 PM PST

  •  As a preschool teacher (25+ / 0-)

    I so get the analogy.

    I use it in my classroom all the time.

    Crying doesn't work is listed as one of our rules.

    But what I also see is that when a child finally understands that tantrums don't get results- that child becomes the class 'police' and starts the next stage of development- tattling.  Someone else now must go through what I just experienced.

    Made me think of this when Sarah told everyone to tone down the rhetoric.

    Growing old is inevitable...Growing up is purely optional

    by grannycarol on Sat Mar 12, 2011 at 01:33:19 PM PST

  •  an interesting idea (9+ / 0-)

    as it happens, i'm never responsive to diaries/news about the hacks on the right, from palin on; i know their names and that they're panderers and that's all

    if it were up to people like me, they'd peter out from  attention- starvation

    but the biggest problem with the american public is that it gets all its jollies vicariously

  •  Sometimes silence is the source of strength. (7+ / 0-)

    Many protests against the Westboro Baptist Church involve chanting and raised voices.  What if every time the WBC delivers their hatred, they were met with protests of silence?  Let their lonely words of hate weigh heavy in the air.

    At funerals, people could stand side by side with their backs to WBC, holding outstretched sheets and blankets to block their view of mourners.

    If WBC is met repeatedly in the same manner, eventually the media may no longer find them 'newsworthy.'  

    Certain springs are tapped only when we are alone ~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh

    by gabriella on Sat Mar 12, 2011 at 02:40:15 PM PST

    •  Ridicule works best against them (9+ / 0-)

      Signs that make no sense or poke fun at them.  And when the Chicago frat boys danced in their underwear, they not only left that protest but canceled the on against "Fiddler on the Roof" (he hates Jews almost as much as gays).  They left, with their tails between their legs, becasue the one thign bigots cannot handle is being laughed at and not being taken seriously.

      The last time we mixed religion and politics people got burned at the stake.

      by irishwitch on Sat Mar 12, 2011 at 02:48:46 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Here's a theory about WBC (6+ / 0-)

        that makes negative punishment (taking away something they want to decrease the probability it will happen again)  seem like the best approach:

         Fred Phelps does don't believe what he is doing. This is a scam.

         It's a business. They travel the country, set up websites telling you exactly when they'll be there, and using the most inflammatory statements all over the place, just to get someone to violate their rights for profit. Then they sue the military, the police force that was to protect them, and everyone that is around them for money. This is a sham, and it is a trap to get people sued. Every member of his family is an attorney. Phelps does not break the law.What he does is try to make you break the law by trying to punch your sensibilities about everything you hold dear, and then sue you and everyone municipality around him to the max.

        It was the best of times, it was the worst of times... - C Dickens.

        by grover on Sat Mar 12, 2011 at 07:01:10 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  So far he's wonthe lawsuits. (4+ / 0-)

          But ridicule sends him feeling with tail between hsi legs. Until he breaks a law, he won't go to jail,and he's covered by free speech rights otherwise, no matter how obscene he is. SO make fun of the asshole. Michael Moore's SOdom Express practically made him break out in hives.

          I keep wonderign why no one has organized the drag queen in whatever palce he's protesting--imagine him confronted by them.

          The last time we mixed religion and politics people got burned at the stake.

          by irishwitch on Sat Mar 12, 2011 at 07:35:11 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  I'd like to expand on this (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            It's not just about the money, these are very conservative people and they really are disgusted by the mere thought of gay sex.

            So put it in their face. Counter protest with your right of free speech and expression.

            Show up with signs of your own. Make it funny, make it graphic, make it offensive to THEM.

            On Politically Incorrect a couple weeks ago, the actor that played "Silent Bob" tells a story about a large gay man he knows that shows up with a big sign that says:

            Dick tastes yummy!!

            Funny and offensive to the Westboro idiots.

            Vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today but may one day become as important as petroleum products. R. Diesel 1912

            by Patriot4peace on Sun Mar 13, 2011 at 04:18:39 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

  •  Proverbs 29:9 (8+ / 0-)

    "If a wise man contendeth with a foolish man, whether he rage or laugh, there is no peace".
         Many years ago someone told me that if an angry, emotional person tries to keep me engaged in an irrational exchange, make sure that the last thing that s/he hears is the sound of his/her voice - having disengaged as quickly and calmly as possible, of course.  This advice has been life-saving at times.
         If a group of people were to stand facing the WBC in full cry and silently watched them with slightly sad expressions, I believe that it would be very unnerving for them.  If it happened everywhere they went...

    Too soon old, too late smart.....

    by DvCM on Sat Mar 12, 2011 at 03:54:20 PM PST

  •  If Sarah Palin doesn't get attention... (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Larsstephens, DvCM, Dave925, lineatus could get ugly.

    We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both. - Justice Louis D. Brandeis

    by dsteffen on Sat Mar 12, 2011 at 04:00:06 PM PST

  •  This technique may work with two year olds (7+ / 0-)

    because they do have a growing sense of right and wrong. But it won't work with most conservatives because

    It's all about them.  That's not their fault.  They're just not mature enough to understand morality yet.  

    I don't dislike all conservatives... mainly just the ones that vote Republican.

    by OHdog on Sat Mar 12, 2011 at 04:02:32 PM PST

    •  It works with dogs too. (11+ / 0-)

      As some who trains dogs, I see the extinction burst often. The key is consistency and that is where most pet owners (and it appears most parents) fall down. It's just easier to give in and let your dog hop on the sofa than ignore his pushy behavior (or those sweet pleading eyes).

      Dogs have a limited sense of morality. They do what works for them. We often reinforce behavior we dont want because it's cute, or we are ignorant (we lack the skills/training to stop it) or we're lazy.... or VERY often, we have no idea that we are  unintentionally reinforcing bad behavior to begin with.

      I think Julie is absolutely right. We use behavior modification on dogs that many would consider beyond hope and we rehabilitate them -- humane techniques, no positive punishment.

      If we stopped reinforcing bad behavior, we would see less of it. How to do so? We start by doing so ourselves.

      It was the best of times, it was the worst of times... - C Dickens.

      by grover on Sat Mar 12, 2011 at 05:03:37 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thank you so much for this (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    walkshills, Dave925, Nova Land, monkeybox
    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've so lacked the words, the ability to build a reference frame to express this idea when I see someone saying something like "Ignore Rush and he'll go away".  No, ignore him and he'll just go uncountered, but I needed some way of expressing that that goes deeper than my gut reaction.  You've just given me that, and this goes to a special file I keep on my desktop of answers  I could never have come up with myself.  TY TY TY.

    "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." ~Frederick Douglass

    by ActivistGuy on Sat Mar 12, 2011 at 07:24:53 PM PST

  •  I just cannot shake my amazement (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    that some folks who look like adults walk this earth with the maturity level of toddlers.

    "It is the right of the people that they shall not be deprived of hope." [Willie Stark in 1949 film version of Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men]

    by vahana on Sat Mar 12, 2011 at 07:51:54 PM PST

  •  One thing about parents: (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dave925, jennifree2bme, Nance

    And even though I'm old enough to be a parent myself, I'm not one, so I'm inclined to see things through the eyes of the child I once was.  

    It seems it's easier for a parent to ignore a child persistently, but relatively politely, trying to get a parent's attention than it is to ignore a child having a tantrum.  I understand that the parent is generally trying to teach the child a lesson about either (a) not interrupting the parent or (b) the parent's prerogative to respond in his or her own time.  But, well, "hellspawn".  If a tantrum is the only way the child can get the parent's attention, that's what's gonna happen.  If there's no way the child can get the parent's attention, then what?

    The '60s were simply an attempt to get the 21st Century started early....Well, what are we waiting for? There's no deadline on a dream!

    by Panurge on Sat Mar 12, 2011 at 10:01:06 PM PST

  •  I think it is important (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jennifree2bme, monkeybox

    to note that extinction bursts have a peculiar temporal pattern. They are, in fact, short but intense "bursts" with increasing intervals between. There is danger in this type of interpretation: "So what happens is that the kid just starts ramping up that tantrum-- thinking 'I just need to try harder'." Behavioral theory makes no account of what the kid is "thinking", and that type of interpretation is likely to lead the observer astray. It's the pattern over time that counts.

    Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn't.
    Mark Twain

    by phaktor on Sun Mar 13, 2011 at 04:39:17 AM PDT

    •  Good point. (0+ / 0-)

      I think of extinction bursts as having more to do with the person responding to a visceral feeling (often anxiety) that occurs when the removal of a reinforcer is felt.

      That toddler or teapartier doesn't necessarily think it through -- but they sure do seem to be feeling a lot and it's often very uncomfortable for them.

      When we're uncomfortable or under stress, we tend to fall back on our established repertoire of responses.  Collaborative problem-solving and impulse control and listening/understanding/empathy are more difficult than throwing a fit which makes it harder, not easier to think accurately.

      In the end, somebody's going to jail.

      by monkeybox on Sun Mar 13, 2011 at 05:45:18 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  asdf (0+ / 0-)

    "Ignore it and it will go away," as a parenting philosophy doesn't work. I've tried it for years, and the kids are still here. (/snark)

    Okay I know we're all intelligent and compassionate grownups here, but I do feel obliged to point out the difference between a tantrum about wants vs. a tantrum about needs. Up to a certain age (say between one and two and often later for many children depending on the surrounding circumstances) wants and needs are the same thing. Babies should practically never have to "cry it out". Ignoring the negative and praising the positive is entirely appropriate for most kids from late preschool onwards unless you're delving into illegal teenage activities.

    For plain old tantrums, I like prevention as a parenting tool. If you can catch it in time, "HALT" the behavior. Think about whether the child is
    Lonely, or
    Any one of these (and a few other) factors can turn even a sweetheart into a monster. Fixing the physical and emotional problems may not change their mind but it may change their behavior and attitude so you've got a more reasonable person to persuade to your way of thinking.

    This works with toddlers through teens, and amusingly enough, it will often work with your significant other.

    Of course, there are circumstances in which the parent's good judgment overrides the child's wants. For example, a baby who struggles against being strapped in the carseat clearly shouldn't get their way... unless the trip isn't urgent and baby needs a snack or a change or a quick cuddle, first, and might be a bit more agreeable to the carseat later on. Some flexibility is always helpful.

    Once in a while, you've got to just bulldoze through what you're doing as fast as humanly possible, ignore the kid's noise until you can divert a moment to them, and hope you won't be paying too much for their eventual therapy. I hate days like that.

    And for the record, Palin and the Westboros are definitely beneath notice.

    Weathering Michigan's recessions since the '70s.

    by jennifree2bme on Sun Mar 13, 2011 at 06:04:34 AM PDT

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site