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love out loud: you’re hot then you’re cold, you’re yes then you’re no, you’re in…termittently reinforcing

The laws of operant conditioning and its methods of shaping behaviour have been applied to numerous situations and purposes in our ever-changing world since the reward/punishment model was pioneered by Burrhus Frederic Skinner many moons ago. One such situation is the quest to find a romantic partner – a task that continues to be one of the more pervasive and challenging pursuits facing young, as well as not so young, people today. What many of us don’t realise is that operant conditioning is a particularly pertinent factor in dictating where our romantic interests lie.

Sociologists at the University of Iowa reported in 2009 that the three qualities thought by both men and woman to be essential in a partner are mutual attraction and love, dependability and emotional stability. But if we’re all able to identify the most ideal attributes, how is it that we nonetheless end up dating jerks and jerkettes so often?

The processes in operant conditioning involve increasing or otherwise decreasing the likelihood of an individual performing a certain behaviour based on the consequences they either perceive will occur, or experience firsthand. But equally important as the consequences themselves are the schedules of reinforcement on which they operate, being either continuous or intermittent.

Basically, continuous reinforcement occurs every time a behaviour takes place and as such, is virtually non existent outside of researchers’ laboratories. In dating terms, this means that you’ll never find a partner whose response time via any form of communication is invariably less than a minute (this would also likely indicate that you are dating a person who has zero interests and little personality). It’s the the alternative – intermittent reinforcement – that is thus the more effective method of ensuring a particular behaviour persists.

In other words, if a dating prospect’s focus wanders to you only some of the time, you are more likely to continue seeking this attention and persevere in the pursuit for a longer period of time than if they have constantly drown you in texts about how much they like you.

We all know this: being completely accessible to someone renders you undesirable, and being unavailable prompts their relentless chasing you. This is not because we’re all just in it for the chase, but rather that in shaping our behaviour, these patterns of reinforcement consequently affect our perception of another person’s allure. The difference in our modern lives is that we now have modern forms of communication to so exactly demonstrate our addiction to being ignored.

Where we previously could only have guessed at how often an individual thinks of their partner (whether actual, potential or pseudo), we now need only look at our surroundings to examine the visible distress over messages left long unanswered. We are now able to check the time a message was sent down to the second, and subsequently create a mental list of reasons it has ever taken us longer than half an hour to ever send a text message to anyone. We also have a whole range of social networking platforms and forums through which a suitor can choose, or choose not to, contact us. By making ourselves constantly contactable, we have also made ourselves perpetually available to intermittent reinforcement (read: rejection), from a love interest.

Our collective assumption that we all just want what we can’t have is evident through the countless sayings that have made their way into our vernacular: nice guys finish last, treat ‘em mean to keep ‘em keen. And yet, we’ve just been inadvertently detailing the effects of our addiction to intermittent schedules of reinforcement all along (this is also why gambling is so problematic).

For all her wisdom, Ms Katy Perry got this one wrong; it’s not “a case of a love bipolar” but merely someone who is, intentionally or otherwise, making you love them by being inconsistent. Despite our belief that we have evolved to a level of reason and intelligence beyond that of our more primal counterparts in the animal kingdom, we’re really still operating with the same principles of conditioning as are our rat friends in a Skinner box.

The problem is that this type of relationship (or non-relationship) also has the potential to leave you in a state of perpetual tension that’s simply not sustainable. Agonising over texts and facebook status updates is actually quite exhausting as well as addictive, and with a bit of luck and a dash of good judgment, you will probably find that while someone might not seem as “dangerous” if they consistently show you that they like you, this is actually a far more pleasant situation to find yourself in.

You can always introduce some handcuffs into the bedroom to keep things exciting.

(Image credit: 1.)

3 thoughts on “love out loud: you’re hot then you’re cold, you’re yes then you’re no, you’re in…termittently reinforcing

  1. Pingback: Reject by rejecting, not by ignoring | Love Out Loud | Lip Magazine

  2. I find this so interesting. I’ve noticed all these behaviours within myself aa well as many other seemingly intelligent people I know. It would also be interesting to explore the behaviours following the reinforcement and the predictability they create.
    Today’s “jerks’ and “jerketts” are able to use these patterns to their advantage… The impacts we are only beginning to discover. With access to contact being so simple now I think we are in trouble…

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