Extinction Burst in Psychology: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Going Shopping with a…
  • 1:02 The Extinction of…
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Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Extinction burst refers to the concept of eliminating a behavior by refusing to reinforce it. Learn more about extinction burst through examples, and then test your knowledge with a quiz after you complete this lesson.

Going Shopping With a Four-Year-Old

Imagine that you are a parent going grocery shopping with your four-year-old daughter. She starts to whine, so you hand her a chocolate candy bar. She eats the candy and is pleasant throughout the trip. The next time you take her to the grocery store, she whines again and you hand her another candy bar, which cheers her up. You and your daughter repeat this pattern every time you go to the grocery store until you begin to notice how much you are spending on candy for her. You finally decide to stop buying her candy bars.

The first and second trips that you refuse to buy a candy bar, your daughter whines and cries the entire time you are in the grocery store. During the third trip, you notice that she only cries when she sees the candy bars in the aisle as you leave the store. By the sixth trip, your daughter finally realizes that whining will not get her a chocolate bar, so she stops whining altogether. Your daughter's temporary increase in whining when you decide to stop purchasing her chocolate candy bars is an example of extinction burst.

The Extinction of Reinforced Behaviors

Reinforcement and extinction are two tools that are used to modify behaviors. A reinforcement is anything that strengthens or increases the frequency of behavior. Reinforcements (reinforcers) can be planned and intentional, such as praising a child for her good grades in order to motivate her to keep getting good grades, or they can be accidental, as in the example above.

By buying your child a candy bar every time she whined, you reinforced her whining even though your intention was only to calm her down. Your daughter knew that as long as she whined in the grocery store, she would receive a chocolate bar (which is why she whined every time you took her grocery shopping).

One way in which you can decrease behavior is through extinction. When you remove a positive reinforcer that maintains a behavior that you want to eliminate, it is called extinction. Extinction assumes that when the reinforcers are no longer present, the undesirable behavior will eventually cease. In the example, you stopped buying candy bars (removal of the positive reinforcer) in hopes that it would decrease your daughter's whining (undesirable behavior).

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