Random Reinforcement: False Hope

Apr 8, 2015 by

          “I want a boyfriend, but I don’t want to date,” I whined to one of my sisters. “How do I make this happen?”

          She gave me the cliché, “You’re trying too hard. It’ll happen when you stop looking.”

          “I’m not trying at all,” I laughed.

          Recall that I haven’t been on a date since November, which I forget was even a date because I spent the whole time talking about another guy. Furthermore, I actively encouraged my “date” to talk about the ex-girlfriend he was trying to get over. #youknowyourenotreadywhen

          “This guy,” my sister said in reference to the one I cried about at the Eiffel Tower, “is the reason you’re single.”

          Not really. I’m the reason I’m single. “This guy” isn’t responsible for how long it takes me to stop missing him.

          “He knows you’re always going to be there,” she said.

          “Ugh! Let me go!” I exclaimed in frustration toward said guy that’s not tangible but never really gone.

          “No,” my sister firmly responded before throwing the onus back on me: “You need to let him go.”

          “Whoa,” my mouth fell. I had just come to the exact same conclusion as I heard the words let me go spew from my lips.




          It’s amazing how much of your world resides within your own head. Life really is more a function of what you think than what is. This guy has been physically absent from my life for – I don’t want to talk about it. Regardless, I feel like I just kissed him goodbye last night. My mind can’t wrap itself around how much time has passed because it’s still too busy wrapping itself around him: I wonder how he’s been. I hope he’s well – like, really well. Not that habitual “I’m well” people give when asked how they are. I hope he’s happy. I hope he’s happy, but I hope he’s single. (Just being honest.)

          I haven’t seen him since –

          But it doesn’t feel that long. It doesn’t feel like he’s left my life, because he hasn’t left my mind. I haven’t dropped the idea of him. His inconsistency has me on a random reinforcement schedule.

          For those who aren’t familiar with operant conditioning, here’s some psych 101: Operant conditioning is B.F. Skinner’s theory that behaviour is modified based on how it’s reinforced. When behaviour is positively reinforced, that behaviour is repeated. For example, as per Skinner’s experiments, when a pigeon pecks at a button and receives a food pellet, that pigeon keeps pecking. The frequency of behaviour, the rate at which the pigeon pecks, depends on the reinforcement schedule.

          To illustrate, if a pellet is consistently distributed after every five pecks, the pigeon learns that it only needs to peck five times for food. Therefore, when the pellets stop coming, the pigeon quickly stops pecking. The behaviour becomes extinct, because when reinforcement that was consistent at a five-peck-per-pellet ratio stops, it is logical to assume that there will be no more pellets.

          However, if reinforcement is random – if a pellet is sometimes dispensed after five pecks, sometimes dispensed after just one, and sometimes dispensed after nine – the pigeon continues to peck, even when pellet distribution stops. Since it never knew when exactly to expect a pellet, it can’t so easily assume that there will be no more. The pigeon keeps trying in hope that the next peck will be the one that yields.

          Sometimes I had his attention. Most often, I didn’t. But because of those sometimes that I did – because I think I’ll have it again; I just don’t know when – I hold onto hope that I’ll see him eventually, if I peck at the right time.

          He’s not the one who needs to let me go. Why would he be the one to free me? I reinforce him consistently. He pecks and gets a pellet every time. Like my sister said, he knows I’m always going to be there.

          I’m the one pecking to starvation. I’m the one yet to walk away from the button. I’m the one using my thoughts to preserve someone who’s not there.

Happiness Tip: Stop pecking for pellets.

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