I imagine it playing out something like this:
I turn on the computer. I click on the web browser. Nothing shows.
There must be something wrong. Let me try again!
I click on the web browser. Still nothing shows.
Click. Still nothing.
Oh come on! Maybe if I shut my computer down and try again it will work?
I restart the computer. I click my web browser. There is no internet.
I give up.
Humans are a persistent bunch. When we don’t get what we have come to expect for our behaviours, we repeat these actions for a brief period of time (behaviour rate increases). We then learn that the behaviour is no longer working and eventually the behaviour decreases. This is another example of what we call an extinction burst.
There is also this funny thing called spontaneous recovery where behaviour that was once extinguished reappears, cued by something in the environment. A few hours later and upon seeing their computer, users may try to access the internet again by clicking on the web browser.
Maybe now it will work?
Spontaneous recovery is typically brief if the behaviour fails to meet up with the reinforcer (in this case, a working web page). It’s like one last try, “Just in case!”. If the behaviour fails again, the learner typically gives up sooner. A few of these spontaneous recover blips could occur over the span of today among the affected internet users. Given the long history of internet use however, this behaviour may take a while to completely extinguish and repeated tries are likely. I’m sure the internet will be back up and reinforcing before that happens.
You could try these things instead
Why won’t the door open?
As part of the people watching that I engage in time to time, I often find myself peering into someone’s extinction burst (or even my own). Extinction bursts are a behavioural phenomena that sometimes occur during instances where one’s behaviour is no longer followed-up with its usual reinforcer. During an extinction burst, there is an increase in acting out from the repeated attempts to try and gain access to the expected reinforcer. Historically, the person has learned that in the presence of items/people A, when they do action B, it is followed by reinforcer C (i.e., the three-term contingency). Now all of a sudden that pattern is no longer happening and an extinction burst ensues.
A common everyday example of an extinction burst includes the reaction to not getting the pop/snack from the vending machine. You put in your money, you press the button, and out comes reinforcement in the form of the desired snack. When this does not work as expected, you press the button again and again. Maybe you kick the machine or attempt to shake it? This burst of activity is the extinction burst. If none of this works however, you eventually give up and walk away empty-handed. You may even avoid that vending machine in the future.
Today’s extinction burst alert is brought to you courtesy of my failed shower attempt (and rude awakening I might add). We seem to have lost hot water pressure in our building. In my sleepy haze I kept turning and turning the hot water tap expecting reinforcement (i.e., hot water) to occur. It did not. I may have said some choice words and I may have banged on the shower walls. None of that seemed to work and I gave up on having a shower in that moment. Because I have such a long and consistent learning history with shower taps always delivering hot water, I am likely to try again another time. Hopefully by then, my landlord has fixed the problem and my efforts can be reinforced once again.
Feelings get all wrapped up in there too: http://behaviouristatplay.tumblr.com/post/4234288294/feelings-nothing-more-than-feelings-part-ii
When we’re met with a door that won’t open: http://behaviouristatplay.tumblr.com/post/5788604530/why-wont-the-door-open
Eric and I returned home this evening after getting a slice of pizza down the street. Upon our arrival to the apartment door, I turned the knob and pushed against the door, expecting the door to open and let us in. Instead of that happening however, I slammed myself into the locked door. It would seem I forgot a few steps, such as taking out my keys and unlocking the door, but I turned the knob and tried to push my way through again. That my friend, was an extinction burst. My head is thankful that it was quick and brief. I quickly altered my behaviour by getting my keys and we were soon inside.
An extinction burst occurs when a person expects reinforcement and the reinforcer isn’t there. A behaviour is put on extinction when we/the environment stops providing the reinforcer for it. Since the reinforcer wasn’t delivered as expected, the person tries again (and again and again in some cases; i.e., the “burst”). This increase in the behaviour is usually temporary as the person “gives up” or changes what they’re doing.
To put my behaviour example into perspective, one would also need the background on my learning history with said door. For the last two days I have been back and forth between my apartment and the rooftop patio: cleaning up, gardening, BBQing and otherwise enjoying the weather and view of Toronto:
Since all the amenities are inside our place and we’re just down the hall our apartment door was essentially unlocked for 2 days. Back and forth I went, turning the knob and pushing the door to get inside. My behaviour of turning the knob and pushing the door was reinforced by access inside. This new chain of behaviour is what I had learned to expect each time I was presented with the door to our apartment. This evening’s arrival to the door was no exception. The lock on the door put my behaviour on extinction; thus, my minor extinction burst.
Think about how many times you’ve witnessed someone getting frustrated and upset because “something changed” or they didn’t get what they expected. It was likely because their behaviour was not successful (i.e., met with a reinforcer) as it was before. Can’t blame the person for their environment changing on them, but we sure do judge people for their ability (or lack thereof) to adjust with said changes. Thankfully, many people will remain calm and eventually try another behaviour.