Roadhouse and Extinction

One of the easiest ways to explain terms that get complex is through pop culture. Today I will explain the concept of extinction, using the classic 80’s movie Roadhouse. First, let’s get the dry parts out of the way …

Extinction – What is it?

Extinction is a discontinuing of the contingency of reinforcement that previously maintained the target behavior, resulting in a decrease in that behavior over time. When implemented effectively, extinction follows a particular pattern.

Component of ExtinctionExplanation
Extinction Burst After implementing a behavioral intervention, behaviors spike as a response to no longer being reinforced, as the learner has no secondary response to obtain what they want.
Bx Reduction Following the burst, if intervention is maintained and effective, maladaptive behaviors will begin to fall and occur at low rates. This is also contingent on an appropriate replacement behavior being taught to the learner.
Spontaneous Recovery Since behaviors are never fully unlearned, at some point in time, whether its a month or 10-years later, the behavior will occur again. If you maintain extinction (don’t reinforce), the behavior will continue to be extinguished.

Extinction Burst

“It’ll get worse before it gets better.” – Dalton

Dalton was describing behavior as he’d previously experienced it. If you attempt to stop (extinguish) problem behaviors from occurring, they will spike before they reduce (extinction burst). As defined earlier, an extinction burst occurs when a behavior is placed under extinction (reinforcement removed). Because the learner has no effective way to get what they want, they increase the severity (frequency and magnitude) of the maladaptive behavior in an attempt to get what they want.

For example:
When you click your keyboard and the compluter doesn’t respond fast enough, many people will often re-click the key, which can lead to continuously clicking it until the computer freezes. Because they did not have a backup soluation beyond clicking again, they increased in frequency of clicking until they were unable to continue.

Behavior Reduction – It’s a team effort!

Extinction requires CONSISTENCY above all else. From all aspects, a behavior must have it’s reinforcement removed. Otherwise behaviors will continue to get worse in one setting, while improving in another setting.

In Roadhouse, the behaviors Dalton fought against spiked so overwhelmingly that he needed to being in his associate Wade Garrett to help him in the bar and in the street, while his potential love interest Doc helped him stay healthy physically (she IS a doctor) and mentally (allowing him opportunities for self-care and to talk his problems out judgement free). Wade fought by his side to help keep behaviors under extinction, and Doc literally sewed him up and helped him plan his moves. They acted as a effective behavioral team.

Spontaneous Recovery

The only way for a behavior to not happen, is for it to never be learned in the first place. Behaviors can NEVER be extinguished to the point they’ll never occur again. Once a behavior is learned, it’s ALWAYS in the repertoire. This means it can come back, at any time. HOWEVER, if you maintain extinction, the behavior will stay suppressed.

In Summary

By the end of Roadhouse, Dalton has fully extinguished the maladaptive behaviors by completely removing the reinforcer. He survived the extinction burst (which sadly resulted in Wade’s death), and he taught the rest of the town how to handle themselves if the situation were to return. He left his new friends ready and capable to handle a spontaneous recovery, and everyone (that survived) appeared to be happy.


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