Intermittent Reinforcement

Intermittent Reinforcement - Intermittent Reinforcement is when rules, rewards or personal boundaries are handed out or enforced inconsistently and occasionally. This usually encourages another person to keep pushing until they get what they want from you without changing their own behavior.

Intermittent reinforcement affects the way we think about rewards. Think about slot machines. Slot machines are programmed to keep a small percentage (usually 5-25%) of the money and pay out the rest in "random" winnings and jackpots. If the payout was predictable, for example, if on every play the gambler entered one dollar and got back exactly 90 cents, the odds would be the same but the gambler would quickly get bored and annoyed. What keeps them feeding the machine is the frequent small payouts (2-10 times the bet), the occasional medium sized payouts (50-100 times the bet) and the dream of the rare payout (over 1000 times the bet). Most people will feed small and medium-sized winnings straight back into the machine and keep playing until they get bored or go broke. That's how intermittent reinforcement works. Slot machines account for approximately 70% of casino earnings.

Intermittent reinforcement also influences how most people think about risks. For example, consider people who build houses on beachfront properties, which lie in the strike zone of hurricanes. If a hurricane hit every year, nobody would live there. But hurricanes tend to be rare and unpredictable. The more time that passes between disasters, the more properties get built in the strike zone. People are attracted by the appealing locations and the low property prices and are willing to rationalize away their concerns. They may see others living happily on a beach paradise and fear missing out on a great opportunity. They may tell themselves: "It's been decades since anything ever happened here." That's how intermittent reinforcement works.

Most children know a thing or two about intermittent reinforcement. When a parent says "no" to a fabulous new toy the child will often keep asking until they are sure that "no" really means "no". They have learned that sometimes "no" means "not yet" and that if they nag enough, clean their room enough or throw a big enough tantrum, they will get what they want. In this case, the random event is the parent's decision and the intermittently reinforced event is the asking. Most experienced parents learn that once they say "no" they have to stick with it, even if they change their mind later, because if they change their mind under pressure, what the child will learn is that nagging works and they will nag even more next time. When we see a child who will not take "no" for an answer from a parent, we often say "that child is spoiled" but we should really say: "That child has been intermittently reinforced!"

Even experiments with animals has shown that if a behavior is intermittently reinforced (such as a chicken pecking at a button and occasionally getting a reward in the form of a treat) an intermittently reinforced behavior will prevail for much longer after the reward is completely removed than if the behavior had been consistently reinforced (such as a reward on every try).

Intermittent reinforcement can influence our decisions in all walks of life, including investments, careers, religion and relationships.

If people made their decisions on a logical basis only, they would calculate risk and reward on the same scale, and make their decisions accordingly. The stock market would rise and fall predictably - in exact proportion to the earnings of the companies traded. Casinos would go bankrupt. Everyone would drive at the speed limit. Natural disasters would be less costly. There would be a dramatic reduction in crime if every criminal was caught every time. And abuse victims would respond consistently towards the abusive people in our lives. But none of us are like Mr. Spock. We often make decisions with our gut more than we do with our minds and are sometimes driven towards believing what we want to believe rather than believing what we observe.

Just as unpredictably as the appearance of a jackpot or a hurricane, people who suffer from personality disorders often experience dramatic emotional impulses and changes of mood. This randomness makes relationships involving people who suffer from personality disorders fertile ground for intermittent reinforcement, both on the part of the personality-disordered individual and on the part of those who are closest to them.

The personality disordered individual is often aware that he or she lacks appropriate self-control and that their abusive behavior is less than satisfactory in the eyes of the Non-PD. They may fear that their behavior will result in negative consequences, increased conflict, loss of trust and respect or even loss of the relationship. They often want to make amends and wish for a better result. However, most prefer not to confront the root of the problem and want to avoid the unattractive prospect of endless psycho-analysis, admitting their failings, being treated like a problem, being forced to take medications, being regarded as someone who has a "mental problem". So they straddle the line of acceptability, trying to maintain the status quo, occasionally trying to "make up for it" when they perceive they may have crossed the line. Once in a while, the Non-PD may blow a fuse and put their foot down or threaten to leave, but it is typically short-lived. Like the person who builds a house in the flood zone, they hope they can "ride out" the occasional storm and get what they want without having to change.

The non-personality disordered individual (or Non-PD) is typically worn out by broken promises and persistent abuse and looks for a sign - any sign - that their investment in the relationship is not in vain. They are like the person who goes to see a movie which turns out to be a big disappointment. Having spent the money to get in, they will stay seated to the end in the hope that there will be some redeeming quality to the movie before it is over. The Non-PD may hold out hope for a loving, reciprocating relationship and may amplify that hope to the point where they will overlook abuse and cling to any sign from the PD that there may be a chance of redemption. The personality-disordered individual may occasionally oblige, often out of a sense of fear, obligation and guilt, giving the Non-PD exactly what they want. Jackpot. Like the gambler in the casino, this will encourage them to keep feeding the machine long after the jackpot has been spent.

In both cases, the parties are victims of intermittent reinforcement, They have the tendency to amplify a belief in what they hope will happen over what they observe has happened. Intermittent reinforcement nourishes that hope and the status quo is preserved.

The antidote to intermittent reinforcement is consistency. Consistency requires you to detach your emotions from your intellect and make decisions that you will behave and respond in a certain way even if it doesn't feel good. Consistency requires sober judgment and a resolve to do what makes sense rather than to do what feels good.

Consistent reinforcement will rarely get you a reward in the form of a thank-you from the personality-disordered individual in your life. However, the reward will come in the long run in the form of consistent behavior of their part - if only to avoid bad consequences of bad behavior.

Coping with Intermittent Reinforcement - What NOT to Do:

  • Don't make empty threats. These are the rocket fuel of intermittent reinforcement. Don't threaten consequences that you are not willing to follow through with 100%.
  • Don't make rash promises. Commit to doing 100% of the things you say you are going to do.
  • Don't repeat threats or promises. Say them once and then follow through with them.
  • Don't make lots of threats and conditions. It's better to have one boundary that you keep than 100 that you intermittently reinforce.
  • Don't intermittently reinforce other third parties. This will only demonstrate weakness.
  • Don't nag. You are asking to be intermittently reinforced.
  • Don't beg. Ask for what you want once and if you don't get it then take back your power and go get it yourself.
  • Don't keep feeding a machine that only pays out 90% of what you put in.
  • Don't build your house in the flood plain. Offers that sound too good to be true usually are.
  • Stop trusting your gut. Trust what works.

Coping with Intermittent Reinforcement - What TO Do:

  • Forgive yourself for your past mistakes and learn what works.
  • Hold your boundaries and keep your promises even when it feels uncomfortable. Remember that you are investing in the "next time"
  • Like a person walking into a casino, decide how much you are willing to lose before you will walk away.