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Extinction Burst: Getting Worse Before Getting Better

What is an extinction burst

An extinction burst is a sudden increase in the frequency, intensity, or duration of an organism’s operant behavior just before it extinguishes.

In operant conditioning, habitual behavior is learned or reinforced by adding a favorable reinforcer (positive reinforcement) or removing an aversive reinforcer (negative reinforcement). During extinction, the reinforcer is eliminated and the unwanted behavior ceases to occur​1​.

Even though extinction ultimately ends the undesired behavior, a transient increase in behavioral response is often observed during the early stages. This extinction burst phenomenon can be found in humans and animals​2​.

child cries

Using extinction burst in treating behavior disorders

Extinction is often used to decrease challenging behavior of children ​3​ such as aggression​4​, self-injurious behavior​5​, and property destruction​6​.

Although extinction is an effective treatment in eliminating maladaptive behavior, extinction burst is a problematic side effect during the extinction procedure. Initially, the negative behavior being removed does not decrease but rather increases for a short time.

In severe cases, such as self-harm, bursts of aggressive behavior can pose a risk to individuals, even if just momentarily.

Also, it is difficult to determine whether the treatment is effective or incompatible. Unsuitable treatment may then continue longer than it should, while potentially effective treatment may be stopped too early.

However, not all extinctions result in extinction bursts. It only appears in a small portion (roughly one-third) of cases in some treatments​7​.

Extinction burst examples

Cocaine addiction

Cocaine addiction is a chronic relapsing disease. Drug-seeking behavior is the action involved in searching for a drug when it is not readily available. This compulsive drug-seeking behavior patterns characterize drug addiction​8​.

Drug addiction can be difficult to overcome since drug-related events or stimuli in the natural environment are key to preventing relapse. The combination of these environmental cues and cocaine use can lead to intense drug cravings in people with a history of drug abuse​9​

An addict’s most common strategy for the extinction of drug use is abstinence. During withdrawal, drug-seeking behavior intensifies in response to environmental cues as an extinction burst​10​.

An impaired drug-cue extinction occurs when the addict is successful in getting and administering the drug.

Toddler tantrums

Extinction is used in parenting quite often.

In dealing with toddler tantrums, extinction is one popular parenting technique.

Most often, the belief is that toddlers throw tantrums (behavior) to get their way (reinforcement). Parents stop giving in to stop the destructive behavior (extinction). The first time parents refuse to give in, the child will likely become more upset, increasing the intensity of the tantrum (extinction burst).

At this point, if parents give in, the extinction fails. As parents persist in not giving in, tantrums will decrease and eventually stop.

Easy. Problem solved, right?

Not really.

The majority of parents who have tried this will tell you the “burst” will keep increasing and doesn’t stop.

The extinction approach used to be touted as a solution to many parenting issues. However, people are increasingly realizing that these practices are not only ineffective but also harmful.

Here is the problem. These behavioral interventions only focus on the negative behavior but not the problem’s root cause.

In the toddler tantrum example, parents focus on the tantrum behavior. In their view, it is solely done for the purpose of manipulating parents to get their way.

But in toddlers and young children, that is not the real cause of tantrums.

Toddlers have tantrums because they cannot their emotions. When they are upset (because they don’t get what they want), they are flooded with emotions they do not know how to control​11​.

Parents giving in may reinforce tantrums, but it does not cause them. By ignoring the child, we are not treating the root cause and helping them to regulate emotional responses.

Treating tantrums using only behavioral principles is often flawed and ineffective since it does not consider how the method affects the child’s psychological well-being. It only focuses on repetitive behaviors, often attributing incorrectly the reinforcer as the cause.


  1. 1.
    Blechert J, Michael T, Vriends N, Margraf J, Wilhelm FH. Fear conditioning in posttraumatic stress disorder: Evidence for delayed extinction of autonomic, experiential, and behavioural responses. Behaviour Research and Therapy. Published online September 2007:2019-2033. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2007.02.012
  2. 2.
    Katz BR, Lattal KA. What is an extinction burst?: A case study in the analysis of transitional behavior. Jrnl Exper Analysis Behavior. Published online November 25, 2020:129-140. doi:10.1002/jeab.642
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    Iwata BA, Pace GM, Kalsher MJ, Cowdery GE, Cataldo MF. EXPERIMENTAL ANALYSIS AND EXTINCTION OF SELF-INJURIOUS ESCAPE BEHAVIOR. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. Published online March 1990:11-27. doi:10.1901/jaba.1990.23-11
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    Lerman DC, Iwata BA, Wallace MD. SIDE EFFECTS OF EXTINCTION: PREVALENCE OF BURSTING AND AGGRESSION DURING THE TREATMENT OF SELF-INJURIOUS BEHAVIOR. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. Published online March 1999:1-8. doi:10.1901/jaba.1999.32-1
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    Goh HL, Iwata BA. BEHAVIORAL PERSISTENCE AND VARIABILITY DURING EXTINCTION OF SELF-INJURY MAINTAINED BY ESCAPE. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. Published online March 1994:173-174. doi:10.1901/jaba.1994.27-173
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    Bowman LG, Fisher WW, Thompson RH, Piazza CC. ON THE RELATION OF MANDS AND THE FUNCTION OF DESTRUCTIVE BEHAVIOR. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. Published online June 1997:251-265. doi:10.1901/jaba.1997.30-251
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    Lerman DC, Iwata BA. PREVALENCE OF THE EXTINCTION BURST AND ITS ATTENUATION DURING TREATMENT. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. Published online March 1995:93-94. doi:10.1901/jaba.1995.28-93
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    Weiss F. Enduring Resistance to Extinction of Cocaine-Seeking Behavior Induced by Drug-Related Cues. Neuropsychopharmacology. Published online September 2001:361-372. doi:10.1016/s0893-133x(01)00238-x
  9. 9.
    Perry CJ, Reed F, Zbukvic IC, Kim JH, Lawrence AJ. The metabotropic glutamate 5 receptor is necessary for extinction of cocaine-associated cues. British Journal of Pharmacology. Published online February 18, 2016:1085-1094. doi:10.1111/bph.13437
  10. 10.
    Harris AC, Pentel PR, LeSage MG. Prevalence, magnitude, and correlates of an extinction burst in drug-seeking behavior in rats trained to self-administer nicotine during unlimited access (23 h/day) sessions. Psychopharmacology. Published online July 5, 2007:395-402. doi:10.1007/s00213-007-0848-2
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    Giesbrecht GF, Miller MR, Müller U. The anger-distress model of temper tantrums: associations with emotional reactivity and emotional competence. Inf Child Develop. Published online 2010:n/a-n/a. doi:10.1002/icd.677

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