Resurgence and Regression: Understanding Extinction So You Can Master It
From a presentation given by Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz during the 2014 Five Go To Sea Conference cruise.
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 5: Extinction Reveals The Past
Part 6: Accidental Extinction
Part 7: Emotions
Part 8: Training With High Rates Of Reinforcement
Part 9: Cues and Extinction
Part 10: PORTL
Part 11: Mastering Extinction
Part 12: Creativity Explored
If you are new to this series, I suggest you begin with Part 1.
Part 12: Creativity Explored
Do you have a training-related question? Are you wondering which teaching strategy will work the best? Are you puzzling over some element in learning theory? Great. Design a set up, test it a few times to work out the procedure and then invite your friends over for a pizza and PORTL party. In the course of an evening you’ll be well on your way to answering your questions, and you might even have collected data to write a scientific paper!
I do like the new name that’s been given to this shaping game, PORTL: Portable Operant Research and Teaching Laboratory. As Jesús pointed out, we’ve been using lab rats to learn about human behavior. Now we are doing the reverse. We’re using humans as a model for animal behavior. Turnabout is fair play. Much better to frustrate an undergrad than some poor lab rat!
So how does this help us? Jesús shared several examples where extinction strategies were used to train complex, creative behaviors.
What Is Insight?
The first used a great video from Robert Epstein’s work. Epstein was B.F. Skinner’s last graduate student. They were exploring the concept of “insight”. How do we solve puzzles? Are we truly creating something that has not existed before, or is creativity a product of combining known components to solve a novel puzzle?
To explore this question Epstein taught a pigeon three component behaviors: pecking a banana, climbing on a box, and pushing the box towards a target.
The pigeon was then put into chamber with the box and the banana. The banana was hung up out of reach. The pigeon couldn’t reach the banana to peck at it, so an extinction process began. There was a resurgence of previously trained behaviors. The pigeon began pushing the box, but it was very clear the behavior was deliberate. The pigeon pushed the box under the banana, hopped up on the box, and pecked the banana. Puzzle solved.
So here’s the question: what is insight? What really is creativity?
Jesús would say this kind of complex puzzle solving was achieved through resurgence. Set up the underlying components well, add in a bit of extinction, and “creativity” pops out.
If you leave out one of the components, you have to extend the extinction process and hope the subject really does become creative. But this is the kind of creativity that is truly stressful. It’s much better to analyze the complex end-goal behavior, break it down into all of it’s component tasks, and then train each of the components separately. The result will be brilliant looking pigeons that solve in minutes what we might otherwise think would be an impossible puzzle for them.
Inventors and Creators
Jesús’ comment was there is “nothing new under the sun”. You are not going to do anything that you haven’t already done before. All the components of what appears to be a novel behavior have been trained in the past. When individuals experiment and find the usual, familiar things aren’t working, some will give up. Others will keep trying until they come up with a novel combination that works.
We call these people inventors and creators because they are able to find these novel combinations. That first learning process can be a painful one, but once the new combination is worked out, it’s easy for others to copy the results.
I can absolutely relate to this. Give me a horse puzzle to solve, and I can be very persistent. My life experience has taught me that persistence pays off. But put me in front of a computer that isn’t cooperating, and I shut down fast. There my experience has produced very different expectations. I’ve experienced too many situations where errors in a software program have made a problem unsolvable, at least for my level of computer skills. I don’t have the component skills that make wrestling with a software issue fun. Extinction has gone too far and been too uncomfortable. So in one situation I can be very persistent and creative. In another I’m the one going through the classic cycle of an extinction shut down.
I know first hand both how much fun the creative process can be when the expectation of success is there. And I also know how painful and unpleasant the extinction process is when that expectation is missing. So here’s the question: which one are you creating for your horses, your dogs, your children – for yourself?
Coming soon: Part 13: Degrees of Freedom
You can watch the pigeon experiment in this video clip:
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: