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I received three different email questions last week. All with the same theme. Two from women and one from a man. They all wanted to know why an intended partner was behaving in a particular way. For the women, it was about a man not asking them out. For the man, it was about a woman avoiding a relationship. All three people put the blame squarely on "fear". They had assumed their partners were afraid. They emailed me to explain to them why.
I'm not surprised that these people have jumped to the conclusion of fear as the answer. Popular dating advice talks all about fear as a reason for behavior. Men are "afraid" to ask women out. Women are "afraid" of getting hurt. Everyone is "afraid" of commitment.
But, fear in this case is not a helpful explanation. Fear doesn't tell us much. Fear also doesn't help us persuade or influence better behavior in a date or mate. So, I offer something a bit different...
At the most basic level, behavior is influenced by consequences (Skinner, 1974). Feelings (such as fear) are but a side effect. In other words, both men and women perform behaviors that have been reinforced in the past - and they assume will be reinforced in the present. They also avoid performing behaviors that have been punished in the past - and they assume will be punished in the present. Essentially, we all seek to maximize pleasure, success, and reward, while avoiding pain, failure, and penalty.
So, Why Didn't He Ask Her Out Then?
So, from a behaviorist standpoint, we cannot say that "fear" prevented a man from asking a woman out (or vice versa). We can only say that the combination of reinforcement and punishment did not elicit the behavior. This can be due to a number of reasons:
- There was little or no reinforcement - Essentially, the man is not attracted to the woman. He didn't have enough of an incentive to ask her out. He needed something more positive to produce the behavior.
- There was the possibility of punishment - Perhaps he though the likelihood of rejection was high, at least for that situation, according to his past history with such requests. Or, perhaps there were other punishing factors - loss of friendships, risks, friends making fun of him, etc. So, he avoided the behavior to avoid the negative consequences.
- Both reinforcement and punishment were high - Maybe, even though the man was attracted to the woman (i.e. found her rewarding), he assumed there to be a higher likelihood of pain, failure, and rejection (i.e. punishment) than success. So, all things considered, he didn't ask.
When the explanation of "fear" is used, it most usually means this third choice above. He (or she) liked the person (found them reinforcing), but was afraid for "no good reason" (wrongly assuming the behavior would be punished). Given the above though, simply supposing number three leaves out the possibility that 1) the other person was just not sufficiently attracted (rewarded) and 2) assumes that the other person believes they would be punished for the behavior. That may or may not be true...
What This Means for Your Love Life
Rather than just assuming "fear", take a look at the reinforcement and punishment around such behaviors.
If you want someone to ask you out, think about the following:
- Have you given them sufficient incentive to do so. Are they attracted to you? Would it be rewarding or reinforcing for them to ask you out? If not, then give them some incentive and reinforcement to ask.
- Have you dissuaded them of the notion of punishment? Are you open, welcoming, and positive towards them? If not, then give them some indication that their request would be met with success. Be open with your body language, pleasant with your tone. Hint that you'd like them to ask. Etc.
- Finally, look for other punishments that may be preventing them from acting. Will they lose you as a friend? Are you roommates with the possibility of a messy break-up? Did you date their friend? Make sure to remove those obstacles too.
The idea is similar for relationships. Sometimes women and men have "punishing" histories from trusting the partners that came along before you did. They need both reinforcement from you - and repeated assurances that punishment won't occur - to trust again.
- Ensure your time together is rewarding and reinforcing. This is especially true regarding behaviors you would like to see more of (e.g. physical intimacy, commitment to the relationship, etc).
- Reduce perceptions of punishment. Point out differences in this situation from the last.
Finally, if you yourself are "afraid", look instead to your perceptions of rewards and punishments. Perhaps, given your own past, you are too quick to assume punishment will occur in the future. Or maybe you just need to find someone more rewarding to prompt you to make you move. Think about it. Then change the (perceptions of) behavioral consequences.
Overall, men and women are not "afraid to date". They simply may not be reinforced to do so - or punished to avoid it. Using this perspective gives you more options to persuade your date or mate. Reward them in the direction you want them to go. Remove threats of punishment. Then, they might just ask you out, trust you, and make you happy too.
For more behaviorism in dating, learn How to Give Your Date a Cookie.
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Until next time...happy dating and relating!
Dr. Jeremy Nicholson
The Attraction Doctor
Previous Articles from The Attraction Doctor
- Skinner, B.F. (1974) About Behaviorism. New York: Knopf.
© 2011 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.