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Defining Behavioral Science: Extinction

Have you ever played the toy drop game? Maybe you know it by the highchair game? If you’ve ever spent time with an infant, you have definitely been at least an unwilling participant in this game. The oh-so-cute baby drops the toy and you, without thinking too much about it, lean over and pick it up. And then you do again. And maybe again, before you realize that you are a pawn in a very fun baby game.

That’s when you stop the game because you recognize that if you keep picking up the toy, you could be doing this forever because the game is so completely fun. In behavioral terms, we would say that that throwing the toy is reinforced by the consequence of picking up the toy. In other words, picking up the toy makes the likelihood that throwing the toy is going to just keep happening.

To stop the behavior from being reinforced and repeated until the end of all time, the behavior must be put on extinction. Extinction in behavioral terms means to remove reinforcement so the behavior will become extinct, stop, die, and never come back.

And now, a delightful video example that satisfies the need to see dinosaurs while talking about extinction. It’s like it was made for this moment.

The baby dinosaur calls his dad “not the mama” while hitting him on the head. The dad dinosaur is ignoring the behavior (at least for a little bit) which, over time, should cause the behavior to go away. Spoiler: The dad doesn’t ignore the behavior, but gives it really fun attention so the behavior continues, but that’s the danger of intermittent reinforcement-and a story for another day.

If the dino dad had continued to ignore the behavior and not provide it with reinforcement, the behavior would have disappeared, just like refusing to pick up the toy after it is thrown from the highchair would also disappear, or become extinct.

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