It takes clarity and consistency to face down an extinction burst successfully.
“An extinction what,” you ask?
“Extinction burst” is the term behavioral scientists use to explain the angry, escalating, often violent response you get when you say “No” after having said “Yes” in the past.
An extinction burst is what your toddler does when he screams and drops to the floor kicking wildly because you won’t let him race down the store aisle after he knocked things off a shelf. It’s what teens do when their curfew is finally enforced. It’s what office gossipers do when coworkers signal they don’t want to hear it any more.
What purveyors of poisonous political calumny do when . . . well, we’ll get to that shortly.
It’s a truism that what gets rewarded, gets repeated. The fancy term for this process is operant conditioning—the person or animal operates on its environment through behaviors that either get rewarded in some way or don’t. Behaviors that result in desired outcomes get repeated. Behaviors that get no response, or that get an unwanted outcome, eventually fade away.
Operant conditioning is a respectful way to influence the behavior of others. Reward what you seek or approve of. Withhold rewards for behaviors you don’t. Try to reason and compromise with political opponents—give a little to get a little.
Of course, it’s important to recognize what a child or puppy or politician really wants. Negative attention is often better than no attention at all. And sometimes that politician wants to disrupt and sabotage rather than find a common solution.
It’s dismayingly easy to reinforce an unwanted habit in ourselves or in others. All it takes is complacency. A parent who’s tired and decides to let an infraction pass without comment “this time.” A teacher who overlooks evidence of cheating because he has to get grades in and doesn’t want the hassle of explaining to parents or the principal. Members of Congress who ignore bureaucratic overreach from the executive branch because it doesn’t impact their home districts—at least not in an obvious way.
Punishment and Complicity
It’s correspondingly difficult to change an unwanted behavior that’s become entrenched.
Behavioral scientists describe four kinds of responses we can make to an offered behavior. Positive reinforcement rewards by giving something that’s desired—a treat for my dog, a bonus for extra performance at work. Negative reinforcement rewards by removing something that’s not desired—a reprieve from weekly chores for an outstanding report card.
Reinforcements are generally the best way to shape behavior we desire. They directly reward and encourage the other person or the animal to choose behaviors we both find desirable.
But what about punishment? Aren’t there times when it’s needed?
There are certainly times when it’s the most effective way to deal with behavior. Negative punishment withholds something desirable. Ignoring a toddler’s tantrums and refusing to engage until the child calms down can often discourage tantrums over time.
Positive punishment ups the ante by actively imposing something that is not desired by the recipient. A swat on the butt and a time out for a child who repeatedly hits others despite being told not to. A significant fine and jail time for financial fraud. Multi-million dollar defamation lawsuits for irresponsible smears of a teenager by major media companies.
Behavioral science explains why the policy that Rudy Giuliani enforced as mayor of New York City—a policy in which minor public disorders and violations were regularly prosecuted—improved quality of life and lowered serious crime rates there.
It also explains why some positive rewards are ineffective—the recipient simply gets more out of continuing other behaviors than out of whatever they’re being offered as an inducement to change.
And it explains why accepting poor behavior isn’t honorable, but makes you complicit in that behavior and its consequences.
So what happens when you refuse to remain complicit? When you stop rewarding a behavior that the other party has learned it can get away with? When, for example, you no longer give in to a child’s screaming demands in the store aisle?
Or when you no longer take the “high road” of silently allowing lies, intimidation, and calumny to deter good people from holding public office, or scholars from publishing research whose findings some dislike for political reasons?
You get an extinction burst. Before the behavior finally ends—if it does—the other party does all it can to deflect your new intentions and bully you into enabling them once again. You get increasingly vitriolic, angry, violent demands and escalating threats.
That is what we’ve seen in Congress, on traditional media, and on social media since the candidacy and election of Donald Trump to the presidency. A massive extinction burst across the Left and throughout the unelected administrative state apparatus.
And here’s the key thing to remember. Once a bad habit has been allowed to persist, the path to extinguishing it is absolutely to hold firm. That mean not providing the reinforcement rewards the other party demands no matter how nasty the escalating reaction might be.
The Power of “No”
There is nothing so rewarding for the other party than to have you give up your attempt at enforcing “No.” To have you acquiesce in “Yes” again.
But resisting by withholding “Yes” isn’t always enough. Sometimes, when the entrenched behavior and the extinction burst itself become egregious, only punishment will deter it. Positive reinforcement is the way to go when you can, but there’s a very sound reason behavioral scientists note that punishment also shapes behaviors.
It’s time for some conservatives to take seriously their complicity in the escalating destructive behavior we see coming from Democratic Party leaders in the House of
Representatives. What gets rewarded gets repeated—and failure to punish destructive behavior is a powerful reward to those committing it.
It’s not enough to shake one’s head and deplore defamatory actions in theory.
It’s not enough to accept destructive actions in Congress because you dislike the current president’s style.
It’s time to act.
But acting poses a dilemma for many. A parent who spanks a child after losing her temper will often feel remorse and shame. That sets up a downward spiral if those feelings lead the parent to overlook or even reward other poor behavior.
“Whoever fights a monster should see to it that he does not become a monster,” warned Nietzsche. It’s good advice, and it explains—but does not excuse—the reluctance of some conservatives to push back effectively on longstanding escalation of destructive tactics from the Left.
The reality is one needs to become like those one fights, to some degree, in order to fight effectively. The United States needed to develop a coordinated, industrially based military capability to defeat the Nazi Wehrmacht. We needed to develop different means and messaging to counter Soviet agitprop and infiltration during the Cold War.
Where we couldn’t or didn’t do so—as in Vietnam and Afghanistan—things did not go so well.
But that doesn’t mean anything goes. Just as losing one’s temper disproportionately at a child’s misbehavior is counterproductive, so, too, must we be very focused and intentional in responding to misuse of the powerful, secret FISA courts, lies by officials in testimony before Congress, gleeful harassment of peaceful citizens by elected officeholders, and other escalating attacks from the Left.
A good place to start is by insisting that the laws already in place be applied to everyone equally. A federal judge did just that when she dismissed with prejudice the federal government’s charges against Cliven Bundy and others, on the grounds that prosecutors illegally and unethically withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense—including evidence that the FBI agents were involved in a violent encounter.
It’s important to resist when federal agencies misuse federal power. But in some cases, when senior people bear direct responsibility for egregious offenses, we must insist that they be held to account personally.
That means investigation, indictment, and prosecution where politicized use of powerful national security capabilities is established. In the coming weeks undoubtedly we will learn more about what and who might fall under that description.
It means countering public harassment with public gatherings that insist on the right of every American to peaceful public speech.
It means seriously considering whether it is time to break up or regulate social media platforms that attempt to influence public debate with a clear political bias.
Heck, it may even mean insisting that other countries abide by negotiated agreements.
Time to Learn a Little Ideological Krav Maga
Just be prepared for even greater escalation of the Left’s violent extinction burst. They’ve escalated already from the street violence of Antifa to calumny during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings and now to openly political moves in Congress to destroy the current administration. As Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz completes his investigation into the FISA warrants secured against Trump campaign associates the stakes could scarcely be higher. The Left desperately wants to reverse the “No” they received with the election of Trump.
When I was a child, my father told his children that he did not ever want to hear that any of us—girl or boy—had started a fight. But he also told us that if we were attacked, we should end the attack by fighting back decisively and effectively. For if we did not, the attacker would only be emboldened to worse and worse behavior.
In the past month, we’ve seen an elected official openly call to have several pro-life teenagers doxxed. It’s one of several increasingly popular ways the Left attempts to intimidate and punish any who have the temerity to disagree with them.
Multiple leftists, including a GQ writer, moved quickly last January to dox Covington teens in response to the smear videos alleging the teens had confronted Native American activist Nathan Phillips after the March for Life in Washington D.C. Not only did they misidentify the actual wrongdoers in that event—they misidentified the teenager involved, resulting in death threats and harassments to him and his family.
It is time for conservatives and libertarians to respond to the increasing aggression of the Left with the equivalent of krav maga. It’s a self defense art developed in Israel whose purpose is to effectively end threats to one’s own safety, avoiding conflict where possible but ending it with efficient and even deadly force where needed.
The appropriate response to media feeding the flames of Twitter mobs with false information is to file defamation lawsuits. The appropriate response to a bigoted elected gay activist who tries to sic a mob on three girls is to file criminal complaints.
And the appropriate response to massive misuse of our national security mechanisms for partisan benefit? Here’s a hint—it requires a bit more than tut-tutting. Unless of course you privately intend to be saying “Yes,” in which case you will soon find you’ll need to say it openly. Because others intend to say “No” and make it stick.
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