In the early days of behavior analysis, extinction was seen not as failed maintenance following from discontinued reinforcement but as an active inhibition of responding. Pavlov had treated respondent extinction in inhibitory terms. In that tradition, extinguished operant behavior was viewed as there all the time but inhibited. What was inhibited was clear enough but what did the inhibiting was inferred and unmeasurable. This way of talking persisted partly because phenomena like spontaneous recovery, often accompanying extinction, had not been adequately analyzed. Later, when extinguished responding in one component of a multiple schedule increased responding in the other unchanged component, the phenomenon, called behavioral contrast, was attributed to an excitatory side-effect of inhibited responding in extinction. Skinner criticized this concept of inhibition and this inhibitory interpretation. But a different variety of inhibition operates within sensory and other biological systems, as when increased neural firing produced by one photoreceptor reduces the firing of neighboring cells. Recasting schedule interactions as inhibitory effects of reinforcement rather than excitatory side-effects of extinction makes operant interactions analogous to receptor interactions within sensory systems. The language of inhibition and contrast remains appropriate but the direction of effect is inverted, and the interactions become consistent with similar ones in concurrent schedules, typically seen as reductions of one response by increased reinforcement of others. Experimental explorations of contrast and related effects illustrate the productivity of this approach but imply that behavioral contrast does not work as assumed when it is used to increase responding in applied settings.
Review A. Charles Catania’s biographical statement.