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Extinction Burst: Why It Gets 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 eventually ceases to occur​1​.

Even though the extinction process ultimately ends a target behavior, a dramatic increase is often observed during the early stages of extinction. This extinction burst period can be found in humans and animals​2​.

Not all extinctions go through extinction bursts. Burst only appear in a small portion (roughly one-third) of cases in some treatments for problem behaviors​3​.

child cries shows extinction burst definition

Spontaneous recovery vs extinction burst

Spontaneous recovery is the return of extinguished behavior after extinction has passed for a period of time. Some people confuse this relapse effect with extinction bursts.

The difference between spontaneous recovery and extinction burst is that spontaneous recovery is a complete return after the disappearance of a behavior while extinction burst is a temporary increase of behavior that is being extinct​4​.

Using extinction burst in treating behavior disorders

Extinction is often used to decrease undesired behavior in children​5​ such as aggression​6​, self-injurious behavior​7​, and property destruction​8​.

Extinction can be an effective treatment in removing maladaptive behaviors, but extinction bursts are problematic side effects because initially, the negative behavior being removed increases rather than decreases during the extinction procedure.

With behavior problems such as self-harm, bursts of aggressive behavior can pose a risk to the individuals, even if it is just a temporary increase.

Extinction bursts makes it difficult to determine whether the behavioral interventions are effective or not.

For example, unsuitable treatment may continue longer than it should if incompatibility is mistaken for extinction burst. Potentially effective treatment may be stopped too early if an extinction burst is mistaken for negative end result.

cocaine needle and skull extinction behavior

Extinction burst examples

Cocaine addiction

Cocaine addiction is a chronic relapsing disease. The compulsive drug-seeking behavior when the drug is not readily available characterizes drug addiction​9​.

Since drug-related events or stimuli in everyday life can easily trigger a relapse, drug addiction can be difficult to overcome​10​

An addict’s most common strategy for extinction of drug use is abstinence.

During withdrawal, extinction bursts cause such drug seeking behavior to intensify when cues are present in the natural environment​11​.

If the addict is successful in getting and administering the drug during the bursts, extinction fails and the behavior patterns are reinforced.

child tantrum extension burst

Toddler tantrums

Extinction is used in parenting quite often.

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

Some parents consider toddler tantrums voluntary behaviors that a child uses to get what they want. If the child’s parent stops giving in, the bad behavior will become extinct because of the lack of reinforcement. 

However, the first time the parent refuses to give in, the child is likely to become even more upset, increasing the intensity of the tantrum due to extinction bursts.

If parents give in at this point, the extinction fails. The child’s tantrum throwing is reinforced and the behavioral patterns continue.


  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
  3. 3.
    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
  4. 4.
    Graham CH, Gagné RM. The acquisition, extinction, and spontaneous recovery of a conditioned operant response. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Published online March 1940:251-280. doi:10.1037/h0060674
  5. 5.
    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
  6. 6.
    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
  7. 7.
    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
  8. 8.
    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
  9. 9.
    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
  10. 10.
    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
  11. 11.
    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

Updated on September 28th, 2023 by Pamela Li

Pamela Li is an author, Founder, and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University). Learn more


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