Casinos know it. Animal trainers count on it. Narcissists have perfected it.
It’s the powerful emotional tool known as intermittent reinforcement, and when used correctly, it guarantees to get—and keep—virtually anyone hooked on anything.
Intermittent reinforcement is when one person in a relationship metes out or reinforces rules, rewards or boundaries occasionally or inconsistently. Instead of discouraging the other person, intermittent reinforcement actually does the opposite. It fuels their attempts to extract the reward once again, keeping them hopelessly locked onto the relationship.
Take for example a parent who says “no” to their child 90% of the time. It’s the 10% of the time the parent backtracks, which incites the child to whine, throw tantrums, or harangue to get another yes. Animals will do tricks every time, even after the trainer withholds the reward, like B.F. Skinner’s rat that hits the bar repeatedly for the chance pellet, over and over, whether it gets one or not. Gamblers, too, know that the intermittent reinforcement of the random, small pay out, will keep them at the slot machines until they empty their purses or pockets.
Those of you obsessed with checking your Tinder account, Tumblr blog, or Twitter, for the ambivalent thrill that comes with those hit-or-miss shots of validation, know what I’m talking about.
The narcissist knows what I’m talking about too. He is adroit at delivering a ping of validation when he senses you’re about to pull away, just to keep you tied to a relationship that serves his needs, usually at your expense.
It’ll be bad bad bad bad, but then all of a sudden good, and you are fooled into thinking good is here to stay. So you stay too. And like Skinner’s rat that starved to death in pursuit of the ever-diminishing, random reward, chances are you too will tolerate increasingly abusive conditions in the hope of catching hold again of a (brief) encounter with good.
But with a narcissist, the good is fleeting by design. That’s intermittent reinforcement.
If you’ve ever been stuck in the sticky grip of a narcissist, you know the drill. When the two of you first meet, the narcissist floods you with expressions of love. You are beautiful, witty, enchanting, the woman he’s always wanted but didn’t think existed. His search is over. Your shoulders relax, you let down your walls, throw open the gates. Your heart sings. You let yourself believe you’ve finally found the one.
Then, without warning, the narcissist switches tracks. Out of nowhere, you can’t do anything right. The qualities in you that she first exalted, are now your worst faults. She’s bored with you, disinterested. She starts to mention other guys, her old boyfriend. You think, what happened? You review everything she said, examining past events for clues that she really cared. Let’s see, she went to my hockey games, came with me to visit my mom in the hospital. Stuck love notes in my gym bag. Didn’t all that mean she loved me? What happened? Is it me?
No. It’s not you. You’re just caught in the narcissist cycle. The D&D, devalue and discard phase. The narcissist practice of projecting their internalized self-hate and disdain onto you, by doing and saying things to make you feel invalidated, rejected, and insecure.
Most of us with even a shot glass of self-esteem get hip to this, and decide to say sayonara. That’s when the narcissist will employ the emotional hook: Intermittent reinforcement. To keep you from exiting, the narcissist will do an about face, and signal you’re back in. He’s on time, attentive, he brings your favorite take out, remembers it’s your dog’s birthday. He takes you in his arms, the clouds part, and the light of his love shines down on you once more. You exhale with relief.
It won’t last. Doesn’t matter. Most of us will cleave to those haphazard disbursements as evidence that a loving, reciprocal relationship is still possible. After the investment we’ve made in the narcissist, we’re already set up to seize on reasons to ignore the bad stuff. So we hang in, continue to chase the good. The narcissist delivers her well-timed, little ping. We’re hooked.
The problem is, over time, the episodes of intermittent reinforcement get fewer and fewer, and the incidents of D&D increase. But the pain of D&D will never loosen the hook, as long as the narcissist continues to fall back on intermittent reinforcement. The only way to get free, is to adopt a strict no contact policy. The sooner the narcissist becomes a memory, the better off you’ll be.
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