Love & Other Drugs

January 16, 2011 at 6:38 pm 2 comments

B.F. Skinner at the Harvard Psychology Departm...

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This is not a review of the movie. Maybe I’ll get around to seeing it one day.

In one of my earlier blog posts I mentioned the concept of partial reinforcement, and it turns out that I was paying attention in my psychology class because partial reinforcement is a term coined by B.F. Skinner, the father of modern behavioral modification therapy.

If you take the time, like I did, to look this up on the internet you’ll find that partial reinforcement is closely related to addiction. Specifically, it’s cited in reference to gambling addictions and video games. But I think you could apply it to any addictive behavior: shopping, drug addictions, alcoholism, overeating, you name it. And yes, you could even apply it to love.

What we commonly refer to as romantic love is regulated biologically by two chemicals that are naturally manufactured by the human brain: phenylethylamine and oxytocin. The infatuation phase, marked by the butterflies and sweaty palms and shaking and other outward appearances of nervousness, is produced by phenylethylamine. The attachment phase, that produces that feeling of calm and well being, can be attributed to oxytocin.

You can think of phenylethylamine as being like the rush of excitement you experience when making love with a new partner. Oxytocin is more like the cuddling afterward.

Not surprisingly, we like the feelings that these drugs in our bodies produce. It’s like the feeling of being drunk, not the slurring out of control feeling, but the “buzz” that drinkers feel after that first, second or third drink, depending on our tolerance level. Drunks, because we are addicts, then try to chase that elusive buzz feeling for the rest of the night, consuming more and more alcohol and finding it impossible to recreate that original high.

It’s the same with any drug of choice. And thus we come back to the concept of partial reinforcement. The concept of reinforcement is a cause and effect relationship between a behavior and a type of reward. A mouse taps on a lever and gets a food pellet. A budding juvenile delinquent creates havoc or mischief and achieves the attention of his parents.

With partial reinforcement a mouse taps on a lever and gets food pellets. First, he learns that cause and effect relationship. If we were to add a click or a ring, then we would be able to show the effects of Pavlovian reflex, and the mouse would salivate at the mere sound. Then what happens with partial reinforcement is that the mouse taps on the lever and doesn’t get a food pellet. Maybe he has to tap three times in order to get a food pellet. Maybe the reward is regulated by a specific time measurement. The mouse taps on the lever and only gets the food pellet five minutes later. And maybe we submit the mouse to a variable ratio schedule. The amount of times the mouse has to press on the lever to get the food pellet changes every time. It’s random.

Guess which schedule results in the most lever pulling? It’s the variable ratio schedule. Think of the little old lady on a riverboat in Louisiana, playing the nickel slots. Again, again, and again she puts in her coin and pull the lever because she knows that if she just pulls that lever often enough, eventually she’ll win a bunch of coins. Or maybe she won’t if she doesn’t play long enough. Or maybe she will win, but she will have put in more coins than she got back in the end. Odds are that even if she wins, in the end, she loses.

With some of us, it’s the same with love. We try over and over and over to get that original high. Sometimes we get it. But how much do we lose in the process? If you break even, then you’re extremely blessed.


Entry filed under: Alcoholism/Substance Abuse, Love, Relationships, Science, Sex. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. popsdumonde  |  January 16, 2011 at 8:09 pm

    Interesting, tackling so many complex issues and interplays in a single post.
    The hardest behavior(s) to extinguish are those variably reinforced. Even though I subscribe to operant conditioning and find it fascinating, I know you know there is more to love than what you’ve proposed; as there is much more to addictions and other complex human behaviors.

    • 2. popsdumonde  |  January 17, 2011 at 12:01 am

      Ms Gooseberry, This may surprise you coming from me. I believe if we have the God kind of love, we lose nothing, but gain all around! The divorce is still on, so that is not why I make this statement.


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