Updated: Apr 4, 2022
If you had a dead moose in your living room, how long would you let it stay there?
In real life, mystery of the suckiness of things is how we get stuck with them. We hang on to the dead moose. It’s totally understandable that there are crappy things out there—bad friends, bad relationships, bad Netflix series, all kinds of painful or time-wasting activities. Fine. But why the HELL don’t we just get rid of the things that don’t work for us?
There’s a theory that explains this, a theory about the stickiness of sucky things. It’s called the theory of intermittent reinforcement. “Intermittent reinforcement” is a psychological term for random, occasional rewards. And the theory says—and it’s been amply proven—that if you reward people in a random, occasional way for doing something, they’ll keep persisting in doing that thing...forever.
The entire gambling industry is based on this.
Experts, professionals, PhD’s in math and engineering have set things up so that if you show up and play any game at any casino, over time YOU WILL END UP A NET LOSER. In other words the odds guarantee that if you stay at the casino long enough, if you walk in with $10,000, you will walk out with way less than that.
So why do people participate in that idiocy?
Because everybody’s experience there is that they win sometimes in a random, occasional way. You lose and lose all the way to $2,300 and then bam! you win $700. You’re hot! Your luck is turning. Maybe at some point you end up $1,400 on the evening. You’re a winner! On a random, occasional basis you’re actually ahead. Now you’ve just GOT to keep playing. And the casino brings over the free drinks, because that’s exactly what they want. Because the longer you play, the sooner you’ll become a net loser.
“But I don’t gamble,” you say. Doesn’t matter. Every part of life is like this.
Why does everyone—not just kids—go around with their face buried in their phone, searching and scrolling?
Intermittent reinforcement. We all have the same experience, and it’s just like the one at the casino. We check one message after another, crap, crap, nonsense, bullshit, and then, bam!, something interesting. We wasted a ton of time, but suddenly some message was somewhat rewarding. We scroll through social media, endless dumb stuff, then there’s something cool. Bam! As with gambling, it’s totally addictive.
And when I say addictive, I mean that literally. When you have that reinforcement of dopamine, you just have to keep on searching for it, like a lab rat in a cage.
And here’s the thing. Like the lab rat, you are disabled from evaluating the net benefit of this activity. And that’s because animals, our ancestors, whether hunters or scavengers, had nothing better to do with their time than to hunt or scavenge. All they had was random, occasional rewards, which they needed to provide them big psychological rewards, to keep them going. Because there was only one game in town.
But we live in a world of endless choices, and yet we live in it as if we were stuck.
This applies to relationships. You’re friends or lovers with someone and they mostly make you unhappy. But every once in a while they do something to make you happy. The random, occasional reward. And so you’re hooked, waiting through the crap for something good to happen again. What you’re not doing is adding up the negatives against the positives and moving on to something else.
We’ve all experienced this with our entertainment. A series we watch where we started out hopeful, then the ratio of bad to good episodes turned unfavorable, but we kept watching because, randomly, occasionally, another good episode would turn up. This certainly keeps a lot of people continuing to watch Saturday Night Live.
We can see this in our jobs. What might have been a rewarding job turns into one that’s mostly unpleasant but with the random, occasional reward. So you hang in there.
This has to stop!
And here’s how to stop it.
The minute you realize you’re unhappy with any part of your life, ask yourself, Do the rewards of this outweigh the costs? Am I getting more out of this than I’m putting in?
This is going to sound crass, but in every little area of our life, we should be running a profit—in terms of emotional energy. Your book club, to take another example, should overall make you feel better, not worse. What it should not be is a place of all-too-frequent frustration with the random, occasional good moment thrown in. And you can’t confuse hope with reward. As our animal friends would remind us, you can’t eat hope.
The time you spend on your phone in the evening: is it a net positive for your emotional energy? Be honest!
But there’s a further question. Even if your assessment is fuzzy—there are negatives and random occasional positives and you’re not sure how they all add up, can you do better? So maybe you’re not getting the shit beat out of you. But come on! Maybe you can find a job or relationship or activity that nonetheless gives you a lot more emotional energy.
Don’t you deserve better than a desert of intermittent reinforcement? I think you do.
And for an experience that’ll give you tons of rewards, check out our award-winning book The Emotional Energy Factor for lots more on optimizing your emotional energy.