Hello and welcome back to the Therapy Spot! This week, I’d like to share a piece of wisdom with you. This little tidbit of information holds the key to finally changing behavior in your relationships that just isn’t working.

Are you ready? Here it is: you are not a rat.

Let me explain.

Back in the 1950s, behavioral research scientists studied how animals — specifically, rats — responded to rewards. At first, these lab rats received a food pellet every single time they pressed a lever. In this environment, the rats behaved pretty normally, because they knew what to expect. But that all changed when the researchers switched up the reward schedule. Instead of getting a food pellet every time they pressed a lever, the rats only got their reward sometimes. The scientists expected the rats to grow bored and ignore the lever.

They were wrong. Since the rats couldn’t reliably predict when the lever would reward them, they became obsessed. In fact, the lever fascinated them to the point where they even stopped grooming and other normal rat behaviors. The fancy term for this is intermittent reinforcement, and it’s the strongest way to reinforce a behavior.

Behavior modification isn’t just for animals

So, what does this look like in humans? We can see examples in both our solo behavior, and our actions in relationships.

  • You check your phone multiple times every hour, never knowing when you might have texts, emails, or social media notifications.
  • You tell your child you won’t purchase any candy at the grocery store. When the two of you reach the checkout lanes, however, your child whines and cries until finally, exhausted, you relent and buy a chocolate bar.
  • Your partner runs hot and cold. You never know whether they will treat you with warmth and passion or cold distance. Because of this, you do anything you can to encourage the affectionate “version” of them.

Sound familiar? As a relationship counselor, I see and hear a lot about the patterns that develop in relationships. Do you see the same things happening over and over, even though the outcome isn’t good? Chances are, intermittent reinforcement is to blame.

But let’s go back to that piece of wisdom. Even if intermittent reinforcement has taken over in your relationship, you are not a rat. As a human, you have the ability to step back and look at the situation. Of  course, that doesn’t mean change will be easy. If you’re stuck in one of these patterns, you might need some help getting out. That’s where behavior modification comes in. On this week’s podcast, I’ll tell you about the tools you need to start making positive change.

For further reading on this topic, I encourage you to visit Out of the FOG.

Image Credit

Lab Mascot #1” by Flickr user audrey_sel, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.