I have mentioned before that I work (read am obsessed) with children with autism. There’s a behavior term that we use quite often when talking about how to reduce problematic behaviors — extinction. I love this word. It my professional world, I might encourage a teacher to ignore a behavior such as throwing paper or pencil to the ground. The child might simply be wanting the teacher to talk to him or to look at him and therefore creates a reason for this to happen. Ignore it and the problem might possible resolve itself.
Behaviorally speaking, here’s what extinction means:
Extinction is defined as the withdrawal of the consequent stimulus that previously maintained the problem behavior. In other words, extinction is stopping the positive reinforcement that has been encouraging the inappropriate target behavior to continue.
In simplified terms, it means to ignore.
How many times in our lives have we told someone to “just ignore it”? How many times have we been told to “just ignore it”? It’s really one of the best behavior modification techniques around. It can be hard to “ignore” certain things though — hard to pull off the perfect extinction.
I’ve talked about the girls I work with — they’re a great group who keep me level-headed and laughing (if those two things can exist together). Our running joke to each other when someone is doing their best to infiltrate our good time is to put them on extinction. We put many people on extinction on most days. Try it — (you’ll thank me later.)
But, as with any good behavior technique, the extinction could lead to bigger problems. Sometimes the behavior you are trying to ignore will escalate and become worse than you ever thought possible. It can be scary. It can make you fearful. It can make you re-think the logic of the extinction. Somethings are hard to ignore.
There’s a tricky side to putting a behavior or a person on extinction.
Here’s something I think that if you can pull off, you possess superpowers for sure. Try putting yourself on extinction. This is difficult at best. When you recognize a flaw in your behavior and try to reconcile it yourself — a bit of reverse extinction. By putting your own behavior on extinction, you are recognizing the problematic behavior, recognizing that it affects someone other than yourself, recognizing that you need to just stop.
I have always been under the impression that the ability to recognizing your own faults was quite divine — quite empowering. But then what? Where is the resolution? Really, the resolution comes when you take action. When you consciously work to create a solution and to practice the solution — when you work to just stop.
Of course, there’s the fear involved again. Fear of recognizing a problem. Fear of pinpointing a solution. Fear of taking action to resolve your own faults. To quote a friend, “I think about how futile it is, how fearful, and odd, and fierce… how majestic it is – her rage.” Tackling our own faults can make us fearful. It is what we choose to do with the fear that leads to change, and there are many things worth facing your fear’s for — many things worth creating change for — I get that.
So, back to extinction and my quest to become a superhero — (wait, I didn’t talk about my quest to become a superhero? Ok, next time). Use it freely, but understand the risks. Understand that in change, there is always fear. But in the fear, there can also be a little rage — just enough.