What is Intermittent Reinforcement?
Imagine that you’re at the funfair and decide to try your luck in one of the games. You play a few times without winning anything but then you finally manage to score. The sense of achievement and reward encourages you to keep playing even though you might be losing even more and more money. If you don’t know when you’re going to be rewarded next, it’s easy to engage in an activity over and over again. This is called intermittent reinforcement.
What Does Intermittent Reinforcement Mean
Intermittent reinforcement is a term coined by a psychologist, B. F Skinner who studied behaviour, and refers to rewards that you receive inconsistently or unpredictably. As seen in the funfair example, when you’re uncertain whether the end result will be positive or not, you’re more likely to repeat the previously rewarded behaviour.
What is the Relationship Between Intermittent Reinforcement and Abuse?
Intermittent reinforcement is a common feature of abusive relationships because in many cases, the period of abuse is combined with outbursts of affection, which is confusing at first but over time, makes you want to work harder to receive the reward again. Very much like in the case of gambling, the chance of winning is low but the activity is addictive. The reward can refer to an abuser showing remorse, treating you with more kindness, showering you with gifts and so on.
Intermittent reinforcement is the reason abusive relationships are so difficult to leave. When the reward is predictable, our brains produce less and less dopamine each time, while uncertainty is what strengthens the ‘trauma bond’ described as an emotional attachment resulting from abuse.
Why is Intermittent Reinforcement in Relationships Harmful?
While all couples fight and your partner might want to make it up to you with gifts or affection afterward, intermittent reinforcement is mixed with abusive behaviour and its aim is to manipulate. The danger of this kind of treatment is that you might start blaming yourself for not being able to leave and ‘respect’ yourself more or even believe that your behaviour is what set your abuser off in the first place. Being in a toxic relationship might lead to developing serious mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, and sometimes unhealthy coping skills such as alcohol misuse.
If you feel like your relationship might be unhealthy, consider talking to a mental health professional. Contact My Family Psychologist for a confidential chat.