Intermittent Reinforcement

If you are anything like me, you have probably found yourself anxiously drooling over your phone, waiting for that not-so-gem-of-a-guy to text you. I mean, why wouldn’t he, you’re so much fun to talk to, he says cute things, and he makes jokes with you all the time! And in the moment the text messages come, you find yourself cheesing so hard that the professor has no other choice but to think that you’ve been enlightened by his explanation on financial analysis. Then just as abruptly as his jokes come, the messages stop for a sporadic period of time, and you find yourself waiting all over again, giving yourself anxiety over whether or not he actually cares about you. He seems to think I’m special but now he’s not even responding to me! Time and time you find yourself falling into these traps of desperation and confusion, not knowing why you can’t peel yourself away from the problem when you know it would be so much healthier in the long run.

This is the concept of intermittent reinforcement, a phenomenon I learned about while indulging my inner (and outer) nerd in 9th grade. Intermittent reinforcement refers to behaviors that are rewarded intermittently, or not continuously. For example, if a kid threw a tantrum on the floor of Toys-R-Us and his parents gave him a present every time, that would be continuous reinforcement. If he was given a present to calm his fits in sporadic intervals with no real pattern, that would be intermittent. And it just so happens that intermittent behaviors are much harder to eradicate. So for those of you who are loathing yourselves for falling into this trap of dwelling over people and things that shouldn’t really matter, don’t feel so bad because it’s just human psychology.

Six years later, after picking up that book, I thought the days were gone that I’d be slave to a primitive psychological phenomenon. After all, people usually say that once you acknowledge the problem, it’s much easier to get yourself out of cycles. But for some reason, every time I meet someone, I find myself falling into the same idiotic cycle, feeling as though I’m on the same intellectual level as a trained monkey.

So how come we can’t stop when we try so hard to break free of these cycles? When we know the rational option is to pull ourselves away from things and people that make us toxic, why do we stop for two weeks and then return soon after? I’m sure if you texted your best friends for advice they’d say to forget about him or whatever problem you’re having and to focus on things that really matter. But as Chris Trager says to Leslie Knope in Parks and Recreation, “Amazing advice, but impossible to follow!” I think in life we try to search for choices that don’t exist, solutions to problems that don’t have any visible answer besides frustration and potential gratification now, frustration and potential gratification later, or continuous frustration but with some self respect on the side. Each of these options sounds atrocious, so we are never really sure which way to go, and any choice that offers a semblance of instant gratification seems to be the most inviting.

Now that the problem has been identified though, I think we can really use this towards a path of self improvement. It’s psychology, if we fall into it’s trap, it’s okay. Every time you feel this happening to you, don’t loathe yourself, but rather accept it for what it is. Try to make the invisible answers more visible. Learn to stop yourself and train your mind to focus on the things that really matter, the friendships and relationships that have been there for you. To distract yourself, pick up a hobby or channel your emotions into something else you’re passionate about, except those interests that involve high saturated fat and cholesterol. And before it happens again, make a conscious decision to hide your phone in the depths of your dirty laundry hamper so you avoid all possibility of doing it again.

Feature image via.