4 Dangers of Intermittent Reinforcement

The most dangerous motivator on the planet

A term that originated with B.F Skinner, intermittent reinforcement occurs when a subject is given a reward at irregular intervals.

A study done with rats has become the foundation of behavioral psychology. Rats were given a lever to press. Some rats received food every time they pressed the lever. Other rats were given food at random intervals. The result was that the rats who were given food randomly became obsessed with pressing the lever. Eventually the scientists stopped giving food completely to those rats. The result was that their obsession continued, going as far as neglecting self-care to press the lever.

Intermittent Reinforcement as Abuse

Victims of abuse often report comments, topics of conversation, questions, and other forms of communication are received seemingly positive one moment and then negatively another moment.

Why is this that the same conversation can seem to promote intimacy in one moment, yet is met with disdain, anger, and annoyance at another time?

  1. When conversing with an abuser there is never true intimacy since the abuser is exercising power over their victim. The moments that seem to be intimate are simply the moments where the abuser is getting what they want.
  2. Whether conscious of this or not, abusers learn that they have more power and control over their victims when they can keep them guessing.

Intermittent Reinforcement: Gaslighting

Intermittent Reinforcement is a form of gaslighting.

Gaslighting occurs when a victim questions their reality due to the words or actions of another.

When a spouse asks their abuser to pick up their socks one day and the abuser simply says, “I am on it”, but the next day flies into a rage the victim is left wondering what THEY did wrong. They feel confused, hurt, and betrayed but they feel that they are responsible for it since there are times when the abuser doesn’t lash out. They question themselves, their motives, their tone, or if they are being controlling by asking their grown spouse to pick up after themselves.

Intermittent Reinforcement and the Abuse Cycle

Victims talk about the cycle of abuse and the damage that this cycle does to their emotional and physical wellbeing. There can be days, weeks, even months or years where abusers seem to stop abusing.

This is often referred to as the honeymoon period. They term honeymoon period is deceptive. Honeymoons are supposed to be times of closeness and selflessness. There is nothing selfless about the period of time in-between abuse. It is all abuse. The abuser is using intermittent reinforcement as a tactic to keep their partner in their control and power.

Intermittent Reinforcement and the Trauma Bond

Intermittent reinforcement creates the trauma bond.

The formation of a trauma bond is a psychological response to being abused. Victims experience trauma bonding in the following ways:

  • walking on eggshells
  • oscillating between disgust and idealization of the abuser
  • feeling trapped
  • weighing the pros and cons of communicating simple pieces of information
  • blaming themselves for being abused
  • a lack of personal preferences or desires

These are just a few ways victims experience trauma bonding.

Intermittent Reinforcement and Abusers

Do abusers sit around thinking about ways they can utilize intermittent reinforcement?

No, but…

They do experience privileges for seemingly random acts of abuse. The abuse though is much more calculated than victims sometimes realize. Abusers think about what they want, the think about how to manipulate others to get what they want, and they choose not to think about the harm it will cause others.

Abusers will go to the restaurant that their wife wants to go to one week because it makes them feel like they are a good spouse, and so they can use it later to get what they want. When the aren’t concerned about being a good spouse then they will make it very obvious that they hate that restaurant and make the victim feel bad for even suggesting it.

Abuse is always intentional.

If you see the effects of intermittent reinforcement in your relationship click here to schedule a free session to learn how to break the chains of abuse.

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