When Previous Behavior Returns: Old Wine in New Bottles

Imagine yourself in front of a soft drink machine. You insert your money and make your selection. Nothing happens. Nada. No drink, just a cold, apparently empty machine staring you in the face. What you do next is what we call resurgence. It refers to the reappearance of old behavior when behavior in newer situations is thwarted in some way. In this example, by failing to deliver something expected. 

In the laboratory a typical preparation is to first occasionally reinforce some response, say, a peck by a pigeon on a key (see The Pigeon Key) to its left. After behavior is well maintained, reinforcement is discontinued for pecking the left key. Now, pecking another key to its right, that is, some other response, is reinforced intermittently. When responding has stopped to the left key and is going strong on the right key, reinforcement is discontinued there as well. As the response wanes on the right key (because it is being extinguished [no reinforcement]), we see a return of responding on the left key.  This resurgence of left-key pecking is short-lived, lasting for only a session or two, but it occurs reliably. If the resurged response now is reinforced, it will, of course, continue.

Resurgence is theoretically interesting to behavior analysts because it represents a dynamic effect of extinction. Extinction not only eliminates its target response, but it can generate other behavior, called forth from the organism’s past by the extinction of current behavior.

The lesson of resurgence for human behavior is both good and bad news. The bad news first. When a child is being treated for a behavior problem, there will be occasional slip-ups by the therapist or caregiver, so-called lapses in treatment integrity. When these happen, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that, at least in the short term, the old behavior problems reappear. If they are reinforced, then it is a set-back for the child’s rehabilitation. If they are not reinforced, and the therapy is reinstated relatively quickly, then it is likely that no lasting harm is done and further progress can be expected.

The good news is that when our behavior is thwarted by some problem (that is, extinguished), other behavior that has been reinforced in the past is now at our disposal to help solve the problem.  Although there are exceptions, drawing like this from our behavioral bag of tricks often does the trick.  If the computer doesn’t turn on (extinction of a recently and frequently, reinforced response,) we may check the cord to see if it is plugged in, check the power to the plug to ensure a circuit breaker has not been tripped, make sure the monitor screen is on, and so forth. All of these activities are captured by the phenomenon of resurgence.

Often old wine in the form of old behavior appears in new bottles, when such behavior is called out by the circumstances of more current behavior undergoing extinction. Look around you and at your own behavior when things aren’t working. Resurgence is everywhere! 

Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.