When behavior persists during extinction…


By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Founding Editor, bSci21.org

Intermittent schedules of reinforcement make behavior more resistant to extinction, right?  Maybe not.

According to a study published by MacDonald, Ahearn, Parry-Cruwys, Bancroft, and Dube in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, behavior seems to persist longer under extinction conditions if it was preceded by continuous reinforcement rather than intermittent reinforcement — a finding which contradicts the well-known Partial Reinforcement Extinction Effect.

Briefly, here’s what they did:

Participants: Four boys diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, whose problem behavior was maintained by escape from demands (for two) or attention (for the other two), participated in the study.

Responses: Frequency of aggression (two participants), duration of hand biting (one participant), and duration of whining (one participant) were the primary measures of interest.

Procedure: Each session consisted of four conditions: no social interaction, continuous or intermittent reinforcement for problem behavior (quasi-randomly alternated), extinction of problem behavior, and no social interaction again.

Results: Among the primary findings was that response rates during the extinction conditions were proportionally higher in all conditions preceded by continuous reinforcement vs. intermittent reinforcement.

While the team noted previous research suggesting that continuous reinforcement increases the likelihood of extinction bursts, continuous reinforcement was recommended for conducing Functional Analyses “to increase the saliency of the tested contingencies.”  However, the team also noted that changing from continuous to intermittent reinforcement after the completion of a Functional Analysis “may decrease resistance to change” when treatment is implemented.

So the next time you plan on implementing a behavior reduction program, give intermittent reinforcement a try first and see how it goes.

Be sure to check out the full article for many more details and let us know your experiences implementing different schedules in applied settings below!  Also be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns bSci21.org and BAQuarterly.com.  Todd serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and as an editorial board member for Behavior and Social Issues.  He has worked as a behavior analyst in day centers, residential providers, homes, and schools, and served as the director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Todd’s areas of expertise include writing, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at [email protected].

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