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Dealing with Resistance to Behavior Change: Extinction Cravings and Resurgence

Junk food

Human beings are creatures of habit. Certain situations cue us to behave in certain ways, and we expect the same behaviors to predictably give us the same results. This is called conditioning: we learn to associate a certain stimulus with a behavior, and the behavior with a reward. The reward motivates us to continue the behavior.

Stimulus Behavior Reward Consequences of the reward
You feel groggy and grouchy. You drink a cup of coffee. You feel better. The next time you feel groggy and grouchy, you start craving coffee, because your brain knows it will make you feel better.
You see an advertisement for some kind of delicious food. You buy the food and eat it. Your brain’s pleasure centers light up and you feel good. The next time you see an advertisement for the food, your mouth starts watering and you want it again.

Don’t underestimate the power of this kind of habitual reward cycle. Many people find it extremely hard to switch to Paleo for good because they’re stuck in this kind of cycle with junk food. When they try to break the cycle, they get an extinction burst.

What Is an Extinction Burst?

Let’s say you have a habit of drinking coffee in the morning. You wake up feeling like death warmed over, you drink your coffee, and you feel better. This motivates you to continue drinking coffee in the morning. Now imagine that you try to quit coffee. This is “extinction:” you’re trying to cut off the reward and ultimately stop the behavior. Your mental conversation with yourself might go something like this:


If you’re trying to lick the screen right now, you might be in the middle of an extinction burst.

Brain: Coffee, please.

You: No, I’m quitting.

Brain: ahem. Coffee, please.

You: No.

Brain: COFFEE. NOW. RIGHT NOW. And if I don’t get it, you’re going to have this horrifying caffeine withdrawal headache forever.

If you don’t give it any coffee, your brain will eventually calm down and stop demanding it: that’s why it’s called an “extinction burst” and not an “extinction marathon.” But in the short term, when a familiar cue doesn’t lead to a habitual, rewarding behavior, your lizard brain responds by turning up the urge to do the familiar thing.

Scientists have studied this a lot in rats. Rats can be trained to self-administer nicotine or food by pressing a lever. When the levers are disconnected from the reward, the rats initially go a little bit nuts and start banging the levers like crazy; then they figure out that it’s not working and the lever-pressing behavior tapers off.

Not everyone gets extinction bursts. This study found that 39% of subjects showed extinction bursting behavior, meaning that around 60% of them never did. But for people who do get them, they can be absolutely awful to go through, especially with foot. Food is one of the strongest rewards around, and trying to quit a particular, highly-rewarding food (say, sugar) can trigger intense extinction bursts where cravings temporarily skyrocket when you stop eating it.

Extinction bursts (at least in humans, as opposed to lever-pushing rats) don’t always appear immediately after stopping the habit. Maybe for the first few days you’re riding high on your initial motivation and everything feels great…and then a week later when the first excitement wears off and your brain realizes that yes, you’re really giving up all that high-reward saltsugarfat junk food, the extinction cravings hit.

Alternately, maybe your cue for the behavior isn’t an everyday thing. A good example is people who eat for comfort. They might not have an extinction burst when they first go Paleo, but they might have one the first time they get really upset or stressed out, maybe a week or two after going Paleo in the first place.

People who study habit formation will tell you first and foremost to eliminate the cue that’s producing your desired response, or to associate it with another activity. But sometimes you can’t eliminate the cue (if your cue for drinking coffee is “getting up in the morning,” there’s no real way to avoid it…) and associating it with another activity doesn’t always work that well, either. Why not? Resurgence.

Extinction and Resurgence

Even if you make it through the initial extinction burst, the cycle isn’t broken. Even after you replace it with an alternate behavior, the initial behavior can still re-emerge after it’s been extinguished the first time. This is especially true if you reinforced an alternate behavior to replace the first behavior, and then have to stop the alternate behavior as well. For example:

Resurgence of cravings for an “extinguished” behavior can appear for all kinds of reasons (changing contexts, changing stimuli, or apparently at random). Since extinguished behaviors don’t actually go away, a return to the reinforcement can put you right back at square 1. There are so many things in the modern food environment that trigger us to eat, and so many different contexts where eating is promoted, that it’s impossible to spot all the situations that might cause a resurgence in cravings.

Managing Extinction bursts and Resurgence

Plenty of people do manage to change their habits over their lizard brain’s objections – here are some tips.

Even with resurgence and even with extinction bursts, it really does get easier with time when you stick with your good habits, so don’t let all this information turn you into a pessimist. Just plan for your lizard brain doing its thing, and then when it does, you’ll be ready to manage it like a pro.