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The Fascinating Reason It's So Hard to Quit Bad Habits Like Overeating or Smoking

Why do many diets end in catastrophe? The answer lies in a strange mechanism in your brain.

This story is cross-posted from You Are Not So Smart. 

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 habit.

You’ve been there.

You get serious about losing weight and start to watch every calorie. You read labels, stock up on fruit and vegetables, hit the gym. Everything is going fine. You feel great. You feel like a champion. You think, “This is easy.”

One day you give in to temptation and eat some candy, or a doughnut, or a cheeseburger. Maybe, you buy a bag of chips. You order the fettuccine alfredo.

That afternoon, you decide not only will you eat whatever you want, but to celebrate the occasion you will eat a pint of ice cream.

The diet ends in a catastrophic binge.

What the hell? How did your smooth transition from comfort food to human Dumpster happen?

You just experienced an "extinction burst."

Once you become accustomed to reward, you get really upset when you can’t have it.

Food, of course, is a powerful reward. 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, you throw an internal tantrum.

Extinction bursts are a component of extinction, one of the principles of conditioning.

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 you get rewarded by your actions, you are more likely to continue them. If punished, you are more likely to stop. Over time, you begin to predict reward and punishment by linking longer and longer series of events to their eventual outcomes.

If 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 – acquire language, acquire money, acquire car, acquire clothes, acquire fuel, learn to drive, learn to use money, learn where nuggets are sold, 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 which becomes automatic after hundreds of hours of practice.

Millions of tiny behaviors, each one a single step in a process, 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.

For a while in psychology, conditioning was the cat’s pajamas.

Source: Time Magazine

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.

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