Resurgence and Regression: Understanding Extinction So You Can Master It
This is Part 4 of a 15 Part series.
Part 1: The Elevator Question
Part 2: The Translation to Horses: Is Personality Expressed or Suppressed?
Part 3: Unraveling the Regression Mess
Part 4: Extinction and Shaping
Part 4: Extinction and Shaping
Often clicker trainers say they never use extinction. I certainly work hard to set up my training so the horses aren’t put into the kind of guessing game that can lead to outbursts of frustration and aggression. That’s something I very much want to avoid. But that doesn’t mean I don’t use extinction. That’s what Jesús’ talk made so very clear.
To the people who say they never use extinction, his response is: “What do you mean you never use extinction! Extinction is at the heart of shaping. Shaping is differential reinforcement. It’s the interplay between positive reinforcement and extinction. So if someone says they aren’t using extinction, probably they don’t understand what they are saying.”
That’s such a wonderfully blunt and typically Jesús comment. He went on to explain what he meant. As he said: “If you don’t understand extinction, you won’t be able to master it.”
Regression and Resurgence
Jesús makes a distinction between regression and resurgence.
In regression you revert back to previously extinguished behaviors.
In resurgence you revert back to previously reinforced behavior.
This isn’t just semantics. Regression and resurgence emerge out of different training strategies and produce different outcomes.
Regression is a term that is used in psychoanalysis and can be defined as: “If the present behavior is not capable of getting reinforcement, one reverts to older forms of response which were once effective.” In other words, when a behavior that has been generating reinforcement is no longer working, the individual will revert back to behaviors that have worked in the past. The order in which this unfolds is significant.
Under stress you will revert back to an older way of behaving. If that behavior is not reinforced, you’ll go through another extinction process. You’ll revert back to even older behaviors. You’ll keep trying things and trying things, until you either give up entirely, or you are pushed to creativity. This can be a stressful process which is why some people think of creativity as an unpleasant experience.
Regression emerges because a behavior which normally earns reinforcement is no longer working. Often we think of extinction as simply a procedure that’s intended to reduce behavior. You don’t like a dog’s barking, so you never reinforce it in the hope that the behavior will go away. This simplistic view misses an important key to understanding how to use extinction. The behaviors that emerge in an extinction process are not random. Understanding the order lets you master the process.
That’s one of the many gems from Jesús’ presentation. Here are some more:
Jesús described extinction as the mirror image of reinforcement.
Extinction tells you what was reinforced in the past.
Reinforcement tells you what behaviors you are building for the future.
I wrote about this in Part 2 of this series: “The Translation to Horses.” When you are first learning about clicker training, if your handling confuses the horse and puts him into an extinction process, the behaviors he throws at you tells you more about his past than his present. Don’t blame yourself for the outburst. Your current training choices didn’t create the behavior you’re now dodging. Turn your spotlight instead on his past. That’s where the behavior was learned.
You may be the catalyst, but you are not the cause. That’s good news. You don’t have to take his behavior personally. The cause sits not in the present, but in the past. It’s only natural to become worried by the emotional reaction you’re seeing. People sometimes inadvertently end up compounding the problem. If their handling skills are clumsy or they don’t yet know how to manage the environment, they can put the horse into even more of an extinction process.
I’ve seen this in beginner handlers. They don’t yet understand how much a lack of clear criteria can impact a learner. The horse has offered three or four clickable moments, but the handler has missed them all.
Those missed clicks can put the horse into an extinction process that leads to emotional outbursts. The handler becomes rattled by this unwanted behavior. She becomes even more uncertain and inconsistent which leads to more frustration in her horse. What is he supposed to do? His growing anxiety leads to displacement behaviors and the emergence of older, unwanted behavior.
That’s where video cameras can be so useful. Video helps the handler to see the training from the horse’s point of view. It reveals the good tries the horse is offering and helps the handler understand more clearly what she wants to be reinforcing. And it aids in learning better handling skills that lead to clean, consistent teaching.
The solution to extinction bursts lies in embracing clicker training, not from running from it. Through clicker training you’ll be building a repertoire of behaviors that give the horse alternatives to his old patterns.
Regression and resurgence reveal the past.
Reinforcement builds your future.
Coming soon: Part 5: Extinction Reveals the Past
Please note: If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites: