Intermittent reinforcement is the driving power behind many addictive behaviors. It happens when things that you want are supplied to you unpredictably, thus causing your brain neurons to light up with extra pleasure. Your brain loves a nice surprise.
The Power of Unpredictable Rewards
Intermittent reinforcement can insidiously turn habits into addictions. A dopamine loop occurs when rewards are unpredictable. As explained on DrJud.com, “Neurons in the reward circuits of the brain fire when they get a reward that is unexpected.”
In an experiment, when mice got a reward every time they pressed a button, they pressed it when they wanted a treat, and they were fine. If they received no reward every time they pressed a button, they quit pressing it and were also fine. But when they sometimes got a reward and sometimes didn’t get a reward, they became addicted to pressing the button.
Intermittent reinforcement keeps people in bad relationships — staying for those occasional moments of connection and affection. It also keeps people in front of slot machines, spurred to keep on gambling by the occasional unpredictable win. Marketers use it to enhance loyalty programs, for instance giving customers a free perk some of the time when they make additional purchases.
Continuous and Intermittent Reinforcement
With continuous reinforcement, you can count on getting a sticker when you complete your work, but with intermittent reinforcement sometimes you get a sticker, and sometimes you don’t. And when you do, you’re extra-happy. And then you start wondering whether you’ll get a sticker next time.
Intermittent reinforcement is sometimes presented as a desirable tactic in parenting. If you offer your child a reward each time he acts in a certain way, that’s continuous reinforcement. It’s useful for establishing a habit, but when you stop giving him the reward he may stop performing the action. But if you establish the behavior and then give him the reward only sometimes, unpredictably, he’ll continue with the behavior, knowing that pretty soon he’ll get the reward.
Of course, he’ll throw some tantrums first. And you are being unreasonably inconsistent. But overall your child feels good as he behaves the way you want, not only because he knows he’ll get the reward at some point but because he gets it randomly, making each instance exciting to his neurons.
Intermittent reinforcement is sometimes used to wean people from continuous reinforcement. For instance, a counselor might contact a patient who successfully underwent rehabilitation for alcohol abuse every week for a month or two, then change to less frequent contact, either on a schedule or apparently randomly.
A Feature in Many Unhealthy Relationships
People in relationships with narcissists, sociopaths, or psychopaths are often addicted by the partner’s intermittent reinforcement — sometimes he returns your calls; sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he’s sweet; sometimes he couldn’t seem to care less.
And you can’t seem to stop thinking about him. Those mice in the experiments above got so obsessed with pushing the button that they stopped caring about anything else. They even stopped grooming themselves.
Effective For Training Dogs
Intermittent reinforcement is often recommended as a key part of dog training. Giving your dog a treat each time he’s a good boy is not realistic, nor very exciting after a while. Coming up with bigger and better treats all the time is not a great long-term plan, either. But the excitement of “Is there or isn’t there going to be a treat?” is very motivating for your dog. He’s basically pulling the handle on a one-eyed bandit.
Whether for good or bad, intermittent reinforcement is a powerful force. If you look, you’ll find it’s all around you, manipulating people into behaviors they may not even realize are dopamine-mediated addictions.