Extinction Burst

The Misconception: If you stop engaging in a bad habit, the habit will gradually diminish until it disappears from your life.

The Truth: Any time you quit something cold turkey, your brain will make a last-ditch effort to return you to your old ways.

Source: Corie Howell

You’ve been there.

You get serious about losing weight and start to mind every calorie. You read labels work out the math for a serving size. You stock up on fruit and vegetables and look up how to properly cut onions and bell peppers. You hit the gym and get an app to track your progress.

Everything is going fine. You feel great. You feel like a champion. You think, “This is easy.”

Then one day you give in to temptation and eat a piece of chocolate, or a cake doughnut, or bag of chips. Maybe you go a bit further and grab a beer or maybe a cheeseburger. Perhaps you are out to lunch, and say, “What the hell,” and order the fettuccine alfredo. It seems like you can handle one transgression, but that afternoon, since you’ve already cheated a little, you think maybe tonight you can you eat whatever you want. To celebrate the occasion you eat a pint of ice cream or a whole pizza. The diet ends in a catastrophic binge, and among the ruins you look at the empty containers knowing that what was once in them is now in you and you you ask, “what the hell?” How did my smooth transition from comfort food to human Dumpster happen?

You just experienced an extinction burst – a predictable and common blast of defiance from the recesses of a brain denied familiar rewards.

Food, of course, is one of the most powerful rewards. It keeps you alive. Your brain didn’t evolve in an environment where there was an abundance of food, so whenever you find a high-calorie, high fat, high sodium source, your natural inclination is to eat a lot of it and then go back to it over and over again. If you take away a reward like that, especially if you’ve become accustomed to indulging, especially if you abruptly turn off the flow of pleasure, you can expect to eventually throw an internal tantrum.

Much of your behavior is the result of conditioning. It is among the most basic factors shaping the way any organism reacts to the world. If your actions lead to positive outcomes, you are more likely to continue them. Your brain doles out pleasant emotions through chemical gifts whenever you do something that benefits the organism it pilots. If your actions lead to a negative outcome, you are more likely to avoid that behavior in the future. Over time, you begin to predict reward and punishment by linking longer and longer series of events to their eventual outcomes.

Say you want some chicken nuggets. You know you can’t just snap your fingers and wait for them to appear. You must engage in a long sequence of actions – walk to closet, put on shirt, find shoes, apply to feet, find keys, find car, drive to nuggets, use language, exchange money, etc… This string of behaviors could be sliced up into smaller and smaller components if we wanted to really dig down into the conditioning you have endured in order to be able to get nuggets in your mouth. Just driving the car from point A to point B is a complex performance with thousands of steps, all of which become automatic after hundreds of hours of practice.

Millions of tiny behaviors, each one a single step in a process, all add up to a single operation you have learned will payoff in reward. Think of rats in a maze, learning a complicated series of steps – turn left two times, turn right once, turn left, right, left, get cheese. Even microorganisms can be conditioned to react to stimuli and predict outcomes.

This concept, conditioning, for a good long while was the cat’s pajamas in psychology. In the 1960s and ’70s, Burrhus Frederic Skinner became a scientist celebrity by scaring the shit out of America with an invention called the operant conditioning chamber – the Skinner Box. The box is an enclosure which can have any combination of levers, food dispensers, an electric floor, lights and loudspeakers. Scientists place animals in the box and either reward them or punish them to either encourage or discourage their behaviors. Rats, for example, can be taught to push a lever when a green light appears to get a food pellet.

Skinner once demonstrated how he could teach a pigeon to spin in circles at his command by offering food only when it turned in one direction. Gradually, he withheld the food until the pigeon had turned a little farther and farther until he had it going round and round. He could even get the pigeon to distinguish between the word “peck” and “turn” and get them to perform the corresponding behavior just by showing them a sign. Yes, in a sense, he taught a bird to read.

Skinner discovered you could get pigeons and rats to do complicated tasks by slowly building up chains of behaviors through handing out pellets of food. For example, if you want to teach a squirrel to water ski, you just need to start small and work your way up. Other researchers added punishment to these routines and discovered it too could be used like the pellets to encourage and discourage behavior.

Skinner became convinced conditioning was the root of all behavior and didn’t believe rational thinking had anything to do with your personal life. He considered introspection to be a “collateral product” of conditioning. Like Freud and Einstein, Skinner was a celebrity in his day, and his belief we were all robots was unsettling. He made the cover of Time magazine in 1971. “My book,” said Skinner in the interview, ”is an effort to demonstrate how things go bad when you make a fetish out of individual freedom and dignity. If you insist that individual rights are the summum bonum, then the whole structure of society falls down.”

Some psychologists and philosophers still hold to the idea you are nothing but a sophisticated automaton, like a spider or a fish. You have no freedom, no free will. Your brain is made of atoms and molecules which must obey the laws of physics and chemistry, so some say your mind is locked into service of the rules of the universe like a clock. Everything you have thought, felt and done in your life was the natural mathematical aftermath of the Big Bang.

You may take comfort knowing this is a hotly contested idea, but whether or not you have free will, conditioning is real, and the impact of conditioning can’t be ignored.

There are two kinds of conditioning – classical and operant. In classical conditioning, something which normally doesn’t have any influence over you becomes a trigger for an involuntary response. Normally, flushing the toilet doesn’t produce fear in your heart, but if you are taking a shower and someone flushes the toilet and then the water becomes a scalding torrent, you become conditioned to recoil in terror while in shower the next time you hear the toilet flush. That’s classical conditioning. Something neutral – the toilet flushing – becomes charged with meaning and expectation. You have no control over it. If you have ever been sick after eating or drinking something you love, you will avoid it in the future. The smell of it, or even the thought of it, can make you ill. For me, it’s tequila. Ugh, gross. Classical conditioning keeps you alive. You learn quickly to avoid that which may harm you and seek out that which makes you happy, like an amoeba.

The sort of complex behavior Skinner was able to shape was the result of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning modifies existing behaviors, making them more or less frequent following certain outcomes. Inclinations become greater through reinforcement, or diminish through punishment. You arrive early to the theater, you get a better seat. You frequently wash your hands, you don’t get sick. You pay the rent on time, you don’t get wet when it rains. You don’t rob banks, you don’t go to jail. You play the slot machine and sometimes, every once in a while, you get some money.

It’s all operant conditioning, punishment and reward. Adding and subtracting pain or gaining or losing out on pleasure.

Which finally brings us back to the third factor – extinction.

When you are under the spell of operant conditioning and expect to receive a reward or a punishment after a certain behavior but nothing happens, your conditioned response starts to fade away. If you stop letting your cat in the bedroom after he meows and scratches at the door, he will eventually stop begging to be let in. His behavior will go extinct.

Right as the behavior is breathing its final breath, that’s when you can expect an extinction burst. Your cat will begin meowing like crazy, pawing at the door for what seems like hours.

Parents are very familiar with this pattern, and if you’ve ever seen an episode of The Supernanny, then you’ve probably seen an extinction burst. In one episode, a toddler refused to go to bed in his crib when it was bedtime, and the parents would fight him all night long until he finally went unconscious from exhaustion. The Supernanny suggested they put him in his crib and just sit in the room and ignore him. The extinction burst would come and go, and if he attempted to escape the crib, she told him they should just put him back in and go back to ignoring. They followed her advice, and the extinction burst was massive – screaming, crying, saying all sorts of whimpering, heart imploding things. His little brain was trying every conceivable strategy to avoid extinction. It was a miserable experience for the mother, which was, of course, what the burst was trying to create. The mother cried, but she kept looking at the wall, and after about 20 minutes, the child stopped, lied down, and went to sleep.

Just before you give up on a long-practiced routine, you freak out. It’s a final desperate attempt by the oldest parts of your brain to keep getting rewarded. As Matt Webb explains at Interconnected.org – if you use the same elevator every day to get to avoid climbing 10 flights of stairs, and one day you press the button and nothing happens, you don’t just immediately take the stairs. You start jamming all the buttons over and over again, you get mad, you ask around for help, you talk to other people, you go back and press the buttons again, and then, finally, you take the stairs.

You lock your keys in your apartment, but your roommate is asleep. You ring the doorbell and knock, but they don’t come. You ring the doorbell over and over and over. You start pounding on the door. If your computer freezes up you don’t just walk away, you start clicking all over the place and maybe go so far as to bang your fists on the keyboard. Trying, like the cat at the door and child in the crib, every thing you can think of to bring back the expected results.

These are all extinction bursts. The burst is a temporary increase in a behavior that usually precedes a reward, a plea from the recesses of your psyche as soon as the conditioned response is no longer yielding results.

Here is some great advice from Canine University magazine: “The worst thing you could ever do is give in to a temper tantrum. This goes for adults too, because if you spend enough time observing other people you will notice that people who are used to getting their way will start a temper tantrum immediately after you have refused their request. If you patiently restate your position and stay calm you will see the person eventually give up. Depending upon how long he carries on will tell you how other people have responded to the person in the past. If he has been rewarded for having a fit often enough the extinction burst will be spectacular, enjoy! If it’s short lived, it will be over as quick as it started and you can feel good that you haven’t encouraged it. The best way to eliminate a tantrum is to not give in, wait out the extinction burst (walking away works wonders) and reinforce the absence of the tantrum with your attention as soon as the person stops.”

So, back to that diet.

If you eliminate a reward from your life like awesome and delicious high-calorie foods. Right as you are ready to give it up forever, an extinction burst will threaten to demolish your willpower. You become like a two-year-old in a conniption fit, and like the child, if you give in to the demands, the behavior will be strengthened. The next time you try, the burst will come sooner and it will be stronger. Compulsive overeating is a frenzied state of mind, food addiction under pressure until it bursts.

Diets fail for many reasons, much of them associated with your body trying to survive in a situation where surviving starvation is much less of an issue. To give up overeating, or smoking, lying around watching Netflix as your biceps atrophy, or any bad habit which was formed through conditioning, you must be prepared to weather the secret weapon of your unconscious – the extinction burst.

Become your own Supernanny, your own Dog Whisperer. Look for alternative rewards and positive reinforcement. Set goals, and when you achieve them, shower yourself with garlands of your choosing.

Don’t freak out when it turns out to be difficult. Habits form because you are not so smart, and they cease under the same conditions. If you are ready for the extinction burst and prepared, you can weather the storm and watch it pass. You can watch the bad behavior go extinct, forever, and only see again as a fossil in photographs from previous epochs in your life, part of a previous you.


  • “Behavior: Skinner’s Utopia: Panacea, or Path to Hell?” Time. Time Inc., 20 Sept. 1971. Web. 26 July 2010.
  • Biederman, Jim. “Conditioning Examples with Answers.” Conditioning Examples with Answers. Anoka-Ramsey Community College. Web. 26 July 2010. (http://bit.ly/VPXe1O)
  • “Classical Conditioning.” Classical Conditioning. Changing Minds. Web. 26 July 2010. (http://bit.ly/VPXa2n)
  • “Extinction.” Extinction. Changing Minds. Web. 26 July 2010. (http://bit.ly/VPWVEg)
  • “Operant Conditioning Chamber.” Operant Conditioning Chamber. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 26 July. 2010. (http://bit.ly/YWJ0i6)
  • “Three Dogs and Two Babies: So You’re Having a Baby…is Your Dog Prepared? – Canine University.” Three Dogs and Two Babies: So You’re Having a Baby…is Your Dog Prepared? – Canine University. Canine University. Web. 26 July 2010. (http://bit.ly/VPXA8T)
  • Webb, Matt. “Interconnected.” Two Kinds of Training ( 3 Jul., 2008, at ). Interconnected. Web. 26 Aug. 2014. (http://bit.ly/YWJ3dK)