Improve Your Life By Knowing About the Extinction Burst

Imagine you are in the lobby of a 26-story building. You push the button of the elevator. Nothing happens. How many times do you keep pushing the button before you realize the elevator is really not coming?

Or, you feed your money into a coke machine you have used for years. You push the necessary buttons, and you expect a can of coke to come out. Except it doesn’t. What do you do? Shake the machine, kick it, pound your fist on it?

What is an Extinction Burst?

If you are smiling in recognition of this behavior, good for you. Psychologists call this behavior an extinction burst

  • We do something (inserting money and pushing buttons) and expect something to happen (the coke shows up). 
  • But it does not happen. 
  • We freak out. We act in disbelief that the reward is not coming.

It is helpful to understand how the conditioning of our behavior works. Some of our actions are animal-like, and we might not recognize that. It is beneficial to realize the extinction burst when it is happening to make a different choice. Since the extinction burst stems from the oldest part of our brain rather than our neocortex, it is hard to avoid it entirely. But we can learn to push the elevator button only three times instead of 20 x and move on to a different solution.

Two Types of Behavior Conditioning

Almost all behavior is conditioned. (Some would say all.) There are two types of conditioning.

Remember Pavlov? You trained your dog to expect food when you ring a bell. Then when you ring the bell, the dog is looking for food. You taught yourself that when the clock says it is 5 pm, it is cocktail time. You make yourself a cocktail. That is classical (also called Pavlovian) conditioning.

The second type of conditioning is operant conditioning. It makes existing behaviors more or less frequent by reinforcement or punishment. For example:

  • You wear a piece of clothing, and people compliment you on it. You now wear that piece of clothing more often.
  • You squeeze too many things into your day, and as a result, you tend to run a little late. Your friends tell you this is not cool. You make more of an effort to be on time.

Changing Conditioned Behaviors

Conditioned behaviors will fade if the expected reward or punishment does not show up. But conditioned behaviors don't die easily. Right as the behavior is about to fade, you can expect an "extinction burst."

Three quick examples:

  1. You decide you no longer allow your dog to sleep in your bed. You lock the dog out of your bedroom by closing the door. The dog will scratch on the door and bark, and try to get you to change your mind. – In this case, you are dealing with your dog’s extinction burst.
  2. Your toddler is throwing a big tantrum because he no longer gets his sippy cup. His parents decided he was now old enough to use a regular cup. I remember our son’s extinction burst on that one!
  3. Your computer freezes up. You keep clicking like a mad person in various windows to get it going again. You might even slam your fist onto your desk.

The Key Takeaway

In summary, when a reward you expect is not coming, look out for the distinction burst. It will come – but by recognizing it, you can abort it and make a different choice.

I’m Curious

What situation can you think of where you have experienced an extinction burst?

Live Brilliantly,

Dr. Stephie

P.S.: I appreciate you commenting and sharing this Brilliance Nugget with others. Thank you!

Stephie Althouse

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