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The “Fifth Quadrant,” or, “You Want Me to Ignore What?!”

Another, very effective training technique is called extinction. Extinction is frequently referred to as "the fifth quadrant," because it is as important and effective as...

Casey Lomonaco  |  Jun 17th 2010


Another, very effective training technique is called extinction. Extinction is frequently referred to as “the fifth quadrant,” because it is as important and effective as each of the quadrants but does not fall on the punishment/reinforcement spectrum.

Extinction is, essentially, non-reinforcement and non-punishment, or “ignoring” unwanted behavior. It is important to remember that extinction only works for modifying behaviors which are extrinsically reinforced by the environment or the handler (often called “demand behaviors”). In dogs, barking or jumping for attention, dropping a toy in your lap to demand play, or pawing at your arm or knee to solicit petting are common examples of demand behaviors. A toddler may throw tantrums or whine as a demand behavior.

Extinction is not effective in modifying behaviors which are intrinsically rewarding (chasing prey, counter surfing, inappropriate elimination behaviors, etc.) For these behaviors, we must manage the situation to prevent rehearsal of the unwanted behavior while we train appropriate, incompatible, and alternative behaviors.

If a learner is engaging in a demand behavior to obtain your attention, one of the most common and effective ways to modify the behavior is by removing your attention or ignoring the behavior. There are a few things to remember when using extinction to modify demand behaviors:

Extinction burst – an extinction burst happens when a behavior that has been continuously or variably reinforced no longer receives reinforcement. The animal or learner may intensify the demand seeking behavior before giving up on that behavioral strategy.

A human example of an extinction burst can be seen when a soda machine breaks. Getting a soda is generally on a continuous reinforcement schedule – each time you put in your money, a soda comes out. When the soda machine breaks, we get frustrated. We may try using coins instead of bills, pressing a button for a different type of soda, or trying again the next day. Often, when none of these strategies work, a human experiences an “extinction burst,” kicking and shaking the machine while using colorful language.

If the extinction burst “works” (a soda comes out when you kick the machine), chances are the next time the soda machine stops working, you will likely try physically and verbally abusing the machine again to get your soda comes out. If the extinction burst does not work (isn’t reinforced), you will attempt new strategies.

Extinction bursts generally happen right before the learner gives up on the old behavior. Usually, after kicking, shaking, or cursing at the soda machine, a person gives up and tries a different machine, gets water from the cooler, or goes to a convenience store to get a soda.

Spontaneous recovery – Spontaneous recovery often occurs weeks or months after the behavior has extinguished. If we use extinction to address the demand behavior of dropping a toy in the lap, the dog may give up on the behavior. Months later, he may see a toy on the ground and think, “Hmmmm…there’s a toy, let’s drop it in mom’s lap and see if she’ll play!”

It is important to address spontaneous recovery events like you addressed the original behavior – ignore them. If the behaviors are reinforced, you will have a remission of the behavior – the dog has learned that sometimes the demand behavior works. In actuality, putting behaviors on this type of variable reinforcement schedule is exactly how we strengthen behaviors in operant conditioning.

While spontaneous recovery can be frustrating for the owner, it is important to remember that:

  • Spontaneous recovery events decrease in intensity – each time you encounter a spontaneous recovery event, the extinction burst will be of lower intensity than the previous extinction burst.
  • Spontaneous recovery events decrease in frequency and increase in rarity- your first spontaneous recovery event may come weeks after the initial extinction, the next spontaneous recovery event may come months after the last occurrence.
  • Spontaneous recovery events decrease in duration – the first time you use extinction to address a demand behavior, it may take a week or longer for the behavior to become extinct. A subsequent spontaneous extinction event may take only a few days. Later spontaneous recovery events may only take one or two trials.
  • You may find this illustration of extinction to be helpful in understanding extinction bursts and spontaneous recovery.

Extinction is an extremely effective behavior modification technique, but requires that the handler have impulse control – you must be prepared to ignore every single offering of the demand behavior.

Stay tuned tomorrow, when we wrap up operant conditioning week!