Unrequited love and gambling addiction: more similar than you’d think.

I liken having an unrequited love obsession with a gambling habit, linking them through the psychological concept known as partial reinforcement: 630 words.

Some time ago I saw a client who wanted help managing his obsession with a young woman that he’d taken a fancy to, but who hadn’t reciprocated. We did some okay work in the session, but I was improvising quite a lot because I didn’t see much relevance for my clinical training.

Afterwards I spoke to a colleague about the session, and described the client’s predicament as similar to that of a gambling addict: He seemed to be hanging on in the hope of a jackpot, despite realising the odds were against him. My colleague thought this analogy was fitting, because she said both scenarios involve a ‘partial reinforcement schedule’. It was a clever connection to make, and here’s how it works:

Reinforcement

Reinforcement refers to positive consequences that follow an action, and cause that action to be repeated in the future. So if I ask a girl on a date by singing to her in badly pronounced Italian from the streets below her apartment with a rose in my mouth, and she miraculously agrees, then I’m likely to repeat this technique in the future. I’ve learned that performing the action results in a desirable outcome, so I repeat the action with the expectation that I will attain the desired outcome again.

Partial Reinforcement

Partial reinforcement describes a situation in which our actions are followed by positive outcomes only intermittently. Researchers have shown that if an action is not followed by positive outcomes, (not reinforced), human and non-human animals alike will soon give up on that action. This will eventually happen even when the action was previously reinforced: It appears to us that circumstances have changed, and we decide that performing this action will no longer be fruitful. But if our action is followed by positive outcomes every so often, we persist with the action despite it being only somewhat effective. It seems that partial reinforcement keeps our expectations up just enough for us to persist with an action.

Gambling and Partial Reinforcement

The gambling industry knows this psychology well. They want us to bet more, but can’t reinforce our betting every time of course, because they’d lose money. Instead, they allow gamblers to win intermittently, and this keeps them betting. A good example of this are the pokies, (which is what slot machines are known as in Australia; from ‘poker machines’). They are programmed to pay out a certain percentage of the money inserted into them, and they do this intermittently so that the gambler will persist with their betting.

Unrequited Love and Partial Reinforcement

Here’s the fun/sad bit. The love struck individual will try and try to attract their love obsession, and perhaps out of politeness, or because of flattery, or maybe because there’s other benefits in it for them, the love obsession will intermittently reinforce the love struck person’s efforts, despite not being interested. This might be with a simple smile, (oh, they smiled! maybe they  like me), by accepting that lift home at the end of a night out with a group of friends, or just by making polite conversation in the corridor because they couldn’t get away fast enough. In fact it might not matter what the love obsession does, because if a person is infatuated enough they can probably read positive outcomes into anything. Needless to say, in these circumstances the love struck person seldom wins the jackpot, and their losses are measured not only in money spent on overpriced roses, but wasted time, missed opportunities with others who were actually interested in them, in dejection, and in diminished self-esteem. (Then again, I’ve known people to be worn down by persistent suitors they were not initially interested in, so you never know…).

In conclusion, beware of partial reinforcement.

Bracing Ourselves with Worry

I suggest that by worrying we are trying to brace ourselves against the emotional shock that would accompany a calamitous event, only by making a habit of this we are consigning ourselves to a life of stress: 600 words.

For much of my life I was a champion worrier. When I was about 4 or 5 years old my teacher gave me the Mister Men book, Mr Worry, so clearly the writing was on the wall for me from an early age. It was a nice gesture from my teacher, but it would take more repetitions of the basic lesson in this story about needless and excess worry for the message to finally sink in. (I just watched an animated version on YouTube and it actually doesn’t end all that well, which is worrying.)

Why Worry?

Worry can be consider a mental way of bracing ourselves for the emotional shock that would accompany what we perceive to be a calamitous event, and it is thought that worriers are particularly sensitive to such spikes in emotion. To see how this works, let’s represent the event by the bursting of a balloon, and the worrier by a relative of mine who is particularly sensitive to loud noises. I’ve seen him visibly tense up at the prospect of a balloon bursting, and he cannot relax while this is a possibility.

Bracing ourselves in this way is a natural response to the potential for physical shock, and would likely protect us from more serious injury should that shock eventuate. Worry is often an attempt to anticipate negative events, and generate solutions to deal with those events. So in this way it can be thought of as mentally preparing ourselves—bracing ourselves—for the consequences.

This all sounds great, but if we are sensitive to the possibility of something, anything, going wrong, then we must work extra hard to prevent this. Hence we must keep worrying, constantly bracing ourselves for the moment we have to deal with the next mishap, whatever that may be. Many things in life can go wrong, and these potential negative events—anything from a minor mishap to a great disaster—are like a room full of balloons. There is always uncertainty over when one of these balloons will burst, so the worrier spends their days bracing themselves for this.

The Cost of Worrying

The cost of all this worrying is experienced physically with symptoms of tension and stress, much like you would expect when bracing for a physical shock. And being on edge all the time makes the worrier easy to irritate, like a mouse trap ready to snap. And it’s exhausting being constantly on guard: they say there’s no rest for the wicked, but also none for the worrywart. And how can anyone concentrate when they constantly have things on their mind? And with all that thinking, there’s very little time for action: not much is getting done, which when you think about it, is a bit worrying. Even writing about worry is tiring and repetitive.

Solutions

So what can we do? It’s a good start to recognise what’s happening: that by always preparing ourselves for occasional moments of acute emotional pain, we are guaranteeing ourselves the chronic emotional pain of stress and anxiety. We can ask ourselves whether this is really a worthwhile trade off. And if we decide it is not, then we must first accept that from time to time we won’t be fully prepared for a negative turn of events; but then we can travel through life a lot lighter*. And if this is unconvincing, there are a variety of quite practical ways to reduce our worry. But this post has been long enough, so they’ll have to wait for another day. Don’t worry, I’ll get to it.

(*In another post I make a similar point using a different analogy.)