Once learned, responses can be lost for at least four reasons. First, they can simply be forgotten during the passage of time. Second, and more likely, they can be lost due to the interference of precedhig or subsequent learning. Third, they can disappear due to punishment. A fourth cause of lost learning is extinction, defined as the tendency of a previously acquired response to become progressively weakened upon nonreinforcement.
Operant extinction takes place when an experimenter systematically withholds reinforcement of a previously learned response until the probability of that response diminishes to zero. Rate of operant extinction depends largely on the schedule of reinforcement under which learning occurred.
Compared with responses acquired on a continuous schedule, behavior trained on an intermittent schedule is much more resistant to extinction. Skinner (1953) observed as many as 10,000 nonreinforced responses with intermittent schedules. Such behavior appears to be self-perpetuating and is practically indistinguishable from functionally autonomous behavior, a concept suggested by Gordon Allport and discussed in Chapter 13. In general, the higher the rate of responses per reinforcement, the slower the rate of extinction; the fewer responses an organism must make or the shorter the time between reinforcers, the more quickly extinction will occur. This finding suggests that praise and other reinforcers should be used sparingly in training children.
Extinction is seldom systematically applied to human behavior outside therapy or behavior modification. Most of us live in relatively unpredictable environments and ahnost never experience the methodical withholding of reinforcement. Thus, many of our behaviors persist over a long period of time because they are behig intermittently reinforced, even though the nature of that reinforcement may be obscure to us.
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