They say the night is always darkest right before the dawn. A flame rises just before it goes out. Dying creatures have a last surge of energy just before the end. And often, when life seems hardest, something good is about to break our way—I call it “the storm before the calm.” Psychologists call it an “extinction burst.” I’m writing this with a heavy heart at a point when outworn prejudices are spiking in my country. I’m finding the concept of extinction bursts comforting, and I hope you will, too.
Here’s how it works.
Somewhere, in a university laboratory, a rat sits by a machine, pressing a lever. Each push causes a pellet of food to drop from the machine. It’s a good time to be a rat.
But then, without explanation, the pellets stop coming. The rat grows perplexed, then frustrated, then furious. Then it goes completely off the rails. It presses the lever faster, harder. It bites at the lever, kicks it, probably shouts little rat curses at it. But the pellet never comes.
And then, not all that surprisingly, the rat gives up.
Disappointment and tantrums
This scenario, with its anticlimactic ending, is how an extinction burst works. It happens when we’ve been rewarded for a behavior, but then the reward stops. For a while, the frequency, intensity, and duration of the behavior increase.
You’ve seen this if you’ve ever watched a toddler throw a tantrum when the TV turns off. The toddler wants MORE television, NOW, and if the reward doesn’t come, the toddler throws a fit of screaming and thrashing that would land an adult in jail.
The logic of an extinction burst is self-evident: somebody wants something they’re used to getting, and they use everything in their arsenal to protest its withdrawal. The objective is to force other people or circumstances to continue giving them the rewards they expect.
Don’t let an extinction burst discourage you
Extinction bursts can be upsetting—they’re meant to be. When you stop smoking, the nicotine addict in you may crave cigarettes more than ever before. Stop chucking your dog treats from the table, and his miserable whimpers will test you to your core. Set a curfew for your teenager, and the rage from your previously loving child will hand you your heart on a plate.
Stay the course.
Extinction bursts are intense, but they’re also transient. If you can remain steadfast, the cravings will decrease, the dog will give up and fall asleep, the teenager will grumble into silence—maybe even (years later) thank you. Your job is to keep doing what you know to do until the burst dies away.
Extinction-bursting into better things
Every step forward toward a more just society draws extinction bursts from people who have learned to expect more than their share of privilege.
In the 1960s, biologist Rachel Carson conducted research proving that pesticides were poisoning wildlife, with devastating consequences. She published her findings in a book called Silent Spring, which would become the foundation of efforts to conserve the ecosystems we all depend on for our existence.
When Silent Spring came out, the lucrative industries selling the harmful pesticides attacked Carson like rats biting a lever. One scientist authored a review called “Silence, Miss Carson.” Others called her hysterical, unscientific, disloyal, and unpatriotic.
Rachel Carson stayed the course. Before long, the first environmental protection laws came into being.
Around the same time, six-year-old Ruby Bridges walked into a formerly all-white elementary school. An angry mob gathered to throw objects and scream protests. All the white parents pulled their children out of school. Only one teacher agreed to teach Ruby. Every day that year, as Ruby walked to school, one white woman threatened to poison her, while another held up a miniature coffin with a black baby doll inside.
I don’t know how she—or her parents—did it, but Ruby stayed the course. And while American society is still shockingly racist, at least children of color don’t draw mobs of raging white adults just for attending school.
At the time that I’m writing this, civil rights in my country are being restricted to an appalling extent. For the first time, the Supreme Court has overturned a precedent ensuring that American citizens have fewer rights than before. We can all see instances where the United States seems to be moving away from equality, rather than toward it. For those among us who have a uterus, who are BIPOC or gay or trans, it’s a frightening time.
My hope is that it’s also an extinction burst.
The decline and fall of the patriarchal pyramid
It’s not surprising that people who benefit from controlling other people go nuts when they feel control slipping away. And the pyramid of power that has shaped modern society—especially the society of the United States—is crumbling. Fast.
At first, it was a group of upstart colonists who objected to the monarchy that ruled them. They agreed that “all men are created equal.” By this they meant all white, land-owning men like themselves. It never occurred to them that others—people of color, women—might also be created equal. But by introducing the concept of a society of equal citizens, they laid themselves open to losing control.
Slowly, over the decades and centuries, that control has eroded. In the twentieth century the changes sped up (a female scientist challenging the pesticide industry? a little girl breaking the color barrier in education?). With the advent of internet technologies and virtually infinite communicative capacity, more and more citizens have been able to point out more and more inequities in our supposedly equitable society. If you’d told me when I was twenty that I would one day be legally married to another woman, I would have questioned your sanity. But here we are.
An extinction burst only happens when the current system is threatened with, well, extinction. That’s why I’m not just horrified by the legal and political tumult in the US, but also a little optimistic. The rat is kicking and biting the lever. The toddler is shrieking on the floor. The power structure is throwing a tantrum.
This is the time to stay the course.
Here’s a comment Gloria Steinem posted on Instagram, discussing the overthrow of Roe v. Wade:
“f we get an unjust ruling from the Supreme Court, we’re not going to obey it. It will just devalue the court. It’s painful—I don’t mean to say that it won’t also hurt individuals—but we have to understand that the Supreme Court only has the authority over us that we give it.”
Steinem said this calmly, quietly. There’s no need to scream and rant when we’re following a course toward a more just society. We just need to make sure the extinction burst doesn’t scare us into capitulating, into giving bullies whatever it is they want.
Rachel Carson stood by her research. Ruby Bridges kept going to school. Whatever we’re doing to take a stand for our beliefs, we need to just keep doing it.
We don’t have to join in the violence, physically or emotionally. We don’t have to fight with our families, throw food at the wall like a toddler or an ex-President. We just have to remind ourselves that the extinction burst means something is about to disappear. We just have to remember that the rat eventually gives up.
We just have to stay the course.