It’s not the chase, it’s the intermittent reinforcement.

I briefly mentioned (in my exasperated rant about yet anther ghosting) that I have once again entered the dark and mysteriously alluring world of online dating, this time with an altered approach. For one I’m on a different site than last time (no more bottom feeders at POF for this girl…I’ve moved on to the (still free) illustrious pool of somewhat eligible bachelors matched to me via the very loose algorithms of OK Cupid.). And for two, I’m more interested in and open to an actual relationship this go round. Shocking, I know. It kind of snuck up on me too but I’ve realized I feel sort of…maybe..almost ready for a regular other person in my life. Whatever that means.

However, just because that’s what I think I  want right now does not mean it’s what I’ve gotten. While there does seem to be more candidates on this site, the dates I’ve been on have not been so different. There’s been the FriendZone guy (decent, easy to get along with, interesting but no chemistry), the boring guy (super available, not a lot going on in his life, nice but…nice), and, the one that seems to click, the Ghoster.

It’s the last one that gets me every time.

He’s fun, interesting, and makes me laugh, even gets my sense of humor. He meshes. Usually there’s something that makes me hesitant at first but a  few dates in and I start thinking “This has potential.” And then it happens. As soon as I start leaning towards wanting him around and feeling optimistic, he “Ghosts”. Dude just drops off the face of the earth never to be heard from again. I’ve experienced this a few times. And every time I’m infuriated.

But then it happens again.

Sometimes there are signs. He texts a little less or seems less engaged. Little things like that. I should be able to recognize the warning signs by now. And I sort of do. The problem is the warning signs make me want the dude more… I thought I just really liked the chase (in a lot of ways I am more like a stereotypical guy than girl. Seriously, don’t buy me flowers…give me beer and a burger and I’m a happy camper.) But then one day, in a somewhat frustrating but still rewarding texting situation with a friend, a light bulb dinged in my head saying:

“Intermittent reinforcement”!

See, this guy and I have a mostly texting based friendship. Occasionally we’ll talk about meeting up for a random adventure. And it has actually happened. Twice. In three years. Sometimes, okay maybe more than sometimes, I’ll randomly text him and he won’t respond. But then sometimes he does. Once in a while he’ll even text me out of the blue. I’m always super excited and kind of happy about it. This pattern has gone on for a while now, over a year (I’m almost embarrassed to admit). Little spurts of fun attention with spans of mostly being ignored or getting short answers in between.

Intermittent reinforcement.

I’ve taken a couple psychology classes (Or I’ve taken a psychology class a couple of times. Whatever. Basically the same thing.) and I remember B.F. Skinner and his rats.

Skinner, an early behavioral psychologist, studied rats and their response to reward based stimulus. He talked about operant conditioning and stuff. (Here’s the Wikipedia page to prove it.) One of the things that this Skinner dude found, way back before the middle of the 20th century, was that intermittent reinforcement was way more effective than continuous reinforcement. Meaning when we consistently get a positive (or negative) result from our actions it isn’t as exciting and, well, rewarding as when we only get that same result once in a while. We thrive off the unpredictability of the prize, it makes us crazy for more and drives us to increase the behavior for even just the chance of getting the reward.

In rat studies this looks like the rat getting a food prize every time it pulls the right lever versus only some of the time. The rat who only gets a prize some of the time will pull that damn lever over and over and over again. Think gambling and slot machines here. It’s exponentially more exciting and rewarding because we’re surprised when we get the reward and addicted to the possibility of getting a reward next time when we don’t. It’s a very effective training tool.

So what do rats and reinforcement have to do with dating?

Everything! Getting a response or attention from a person only some of the time instead of every time we try makes us want to try to get that person’s attention even more. Anyone who had done any online dating can probably give antedotal evidence of this. 

So I realized that I was engaged in a pattern of intermittent reinforcement with Fickle Texting guy. The fact that he didn’t respond every time, or even regularly, made me want interaction with him even more. When he did actually respond and interact it was like all the cherries lined up on the slot machine. Excitement and win ! When there was no response it was annoying and frustrating but I was still drawn to texting him again at random. Because he might respond. The possibulity was there. As soon as I recognized this dynamic with Fickle Texting Guy (I’m slow sometimes but eventually I get it.) I started to notice it other places in my life too, specifically in some of my past dating experiences.

Heck, I’ve been on the receiving AND the giving end of intermittent reinforcement.

I think we all have and that’s not necessarily unhealthy. At the beginning, in moderation, it’s part of what builds attraction. But, and this is a big butt, it can very easily become unhealthy and even feed into abusive relationship dynamics. Continued intermittent reinforcement basically gives one person control of the interaction pace and lends itself to a craving in the other person that goes largely unsatisfied. Again, think gambling addiction here. It’s the same thing.

SO now that I’m aware of this thing, what do I do with this it? 

Do I try to “hook” a guy using intermittent reinforcement? It does sound like a fun social experiment. But what kind of a relationship dynamic would that foster? And what kind of guy would I catch with that?

Seeking out guys who don’t engage in imtermittent reinforcement seems like a better idea. I mean, I’ve already proven to be good at finding the guy who is going to run away, probably after the next shiny thing. Identifying patterns of intermittent reinforcement early could be a good way to weed out the Ghosters before the disappearing act begins. This is something I’m going to mull over and keep in mind as I message new guys online and continue to try and find one who will not only stick around, but who I also actually want around. 

As for the guy who only responds to texts sometimes, it’s been about a month since I’ve restarted the intermittent reinforcement cycle and I’m not all that interested in doing so. Maybe knowing really is half the battle.

 

 

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About nights7

A metamorphosis in progress...always.

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