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 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 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.