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

Personal Health

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.

Scientists place animals in the box and either reward them or punish them to either encourage or discourage their behavior.

Rats, for example, can be taught to push a lever when a green light appears to get a food pellet.

Skinner demonstrated how he could teach a pigeon to spin in circles at his command by offering food only when it turned in one direction. Gradually, he withheld the food until the pigeon had turned a little farther and farther until he had it going round and round.

He could even get the pigeon to distinguish between the word “peck” and “turn” and get them to perform the corresponding behavior just by showing them a sign.

Yes, in a sense, he taught a bird to read.

Skinner discovered you could get pigeons and rats to do complicated tasks by slowly building up chains of behaviors through handing out pellets of food. For example, if you want to teach a squirrel to water ski, you just need to start small and work your way up.

Other researchers added punishment to the routines and discovered it too could be used like the pellets to encourage and discourage behavior.

Skinner became convinced conditioning was the root of all behavior and didn’t believe rational thinking had anything to do with your personal life. He considered introspection to be a “collateral product” of conditioning.

Like Freud and Einstein, Skinner was a celebrity in his day, and his belief we were all robots was unsettling. He made the cover of Time magazine in 1971.

“My book,” says Skinner, ”is an effort to demonstrate how things go bad when you make a fetish out of individual freedom and dignity. If you insist that individual rights are the summum bonum, then the whole structure of society falls down.” - Time Magazine, 1971

Some psychologists and philosophers still hold to the idea you are nothing but a sophisticated automaton, like a spider or a fish. You have no freedom, no free will.

Your brain is made of atoms and molecules which must obey the laws of physics and chemistry, so some say your mind is locked into service of the rules of the universe like a clock. Everything you have thought, felt and done in your life was the natural mathematical aftermath of the Big Bang.

To this wing of psychology, you are the same as an insect, just with a more complex nervous system responding to stimuli with a wider array of denser behavioral routines which only appear to give rise to consciousness.

You may take comfort knowing this is a hotly contested idea, one which is as old as the Greek philosophers who imagined the unconscious as wild horses pulling a chariot helmed by your upper-level reasoning.

There are two kinds of conditioning – classical and operant. Whether or not you have free will, conditioning is real, and the impact of conditioning can’t be ignored.

In classical conditioning, something which normally doesn’t have any influence becomes a trigger for a response.

If you are taking a shower and someone flushes the toilet which then causes the water to become a scalding torrent, you become conditioned to recoil in terror the next time you hear the toilet flush while lathering up.

That’s classical conditioning. Something neutral – the toilet flushing – becomes charged with meaning and expectation. You have no control over it. You recoil from the water without ever thinking, “I should recoil from this water else I get scalded.”

If you have ever been sick after eating or drinking something you love, you will avoid it in the future. The smell of it, or even the thought of it, can make you ill.

For me, it’s tequila. Ugh, gross.

Classical conditioning keeps you alive. You learn quickly to avoid that which may harm you and seek out that which makes you happy, like an amoeba.

The sort of complex behavior Skinner produced in animals was the result of operant conditioning.

Operant conditioning changes your desires. Your inclinations becomes greater through reinforcement, or diminish through punishment.

You go to work, you get paid. You turn on the air conditioning and stop sweating. You don’t run the red light, you don’t get a ticket. You pay the rent, you don’t get evicted.

It’s all operant conditioning, punishment and reward.

Which finally brings us back to the third factor – extinction.

When you expect a reward or a punishment and nothing happens, your conditioned response starts to fade away.

If you stop feeding your cat, he will stop hanging around the food bowl and meowing. His behavior will go extinct.

If you were to keep going to work and not get paid, eventually you would stop.

This is when the extinction burst happens, right as the behavior is breathing its final breath.

You wouldn’t just not go to work anymore. You would probably storm into the boss’s office and demand an explanation. If you got nowhere after gesticulating wildly and inventing new curse words out of your boss’s last name, you might scoop your arm across his desk and leave in handcuffs.

Just before you give up on a long-practiced routine, you freak out. It’s a final desperate attempt by the oldest parts of your brain to keep getting rewarded.

If you use the same elevator every day, and one day you press the button and nothing happens, you start jamming the button over and over again instead of just giving up.

You lock your keys in your apartment, but your roommate is asleep. You ring the doorbell and knock, but they don’t come. You ring the doorbell over and over and over. You start pounding on the door.

If your computer freezes up you don’t just walk away, you start clicking all over the place and maybe go so far as to bang your fists on the keyboard.

If a child doesn’t get any candy at the checkout line, he or she may throw a giant spit-slinging tantrum.

These are all extinction bursts. A temporary increase in an old behavior, a plea from the recesses of your psyche.

The worst thing you could ever do is give in to a temper tantrum. This goes for adults too, because if you spend enough time observing other people you will notice that people who are used to getting their way will start a temper tantrum immediately after you have refused their request. If you patiently restate your position and stay calm you will see the person eventually give up. Depending upon how long he carries on will tell you how other people have responded to the person in the past. If he has been rewarded for having a fit often enough the extinction burst will be spectacular, enjoy! If it’s short lived, it will be over as quick as it started and you can feel good that you haven’t encouraged it. The best way to eliminate a tantrum is to not give in, wait out the extinction burst (walking away works wonders) and reinforce the absence of the tantrum with your attention as soon as the person stops. - From the Canine University’s training statement

So, back to that diet.

You eliminate a reward from your life: awesome and delicious high-calorie foods. Right as you are ready to give it up forever, an extinction burst threatens to demolish your willpower.

You become like a two-year-old in a conniption fit, and like the child, if you give in to the demands, the behavior will be strengthened.

Compulsive overeating is a frenzied state of mind, food addiction under pressure until it bursts.

Diets fail for many reasons, much of them associated with your body trying to survive in a situation where surviving starvation is much less of an issue.

To give up overeating, or smoking, or gambling, or “World of Warcraft,” or any bad habit which was formed through conditioning, you must be prepared to weather the secret weapon of your unconscious – the extinction burst.

Become your own Supernanny, your own Dog Whisperer. Look for alternative rewards and positive reinforcement. Set goals, and when you achieve them, shower yourself with garlands of your choosing.

Don’t freak out when it turns out to be difficult. Habits form because you are not so smart, and they cease under the same conditions.

Check out a copy of the book "You Are Not So Smart."

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