How to Train Your Boyfriend

How behaviorism and evolutionary psychology can improve your relationships.

Posted Aug 05, 2020

Hi! Welcome to the inaugural post of my blog. I’m Diana Fleischman, perhaps the only behaviorist evolutionary psychologist, and I’m writing a book called How to Train Your Boyfriend, about how and why I think all of us, but especially women, evolved to get other people to do what was in our best interests by instinctively using rewards and punishments to shape behavior—aka, using behaviorism.

In my view, we’re all intuitive behaviorists and when you think about human nature from this perspective our psychology begins to make a lot more sense. In this blog I’m going to talk about behaviorism and evolutionary psychology, the interesting ways they intersect, and how we can learn from this perspective to improve our lives and our relationships. 

It’s hard to imagine from the comfort of our modern lives, but we evolved in a dangerous world where people commonly died from predators, injury, war, and disease. When we think about surviving and reproducing we usually think about avoiding danger and collecting food. But our ancestors were deeply interdependent, relying on one another for protection, food, and care. Through the majority of our history, we needed to get other people to do stuff that prevented us from dying, and helped us to reproduce (and helped our kids to reproduce, and not die before they got around to it).

You have two grandmothers, four great grandmothers, 512 great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmothers and millions of grandmas further in your past, before the word grandma even existed. These grandmas that scraped by, suffered, and survived long enough to reproduce, are only a fraction of all the women that existed. One important characteristic that set grandmas apart from the millions of non-grandmas was their ability to shape the behavior of others, especially children and grandpas. You probably have grandmas who lived on farms trying to get multiple children to cooperate with (and not kill) one another and in villages where they had to manage their reputations for the good of their families. But you definitely have grandmas who convinced men to take care of them and their children. Without any one of them, and their abilities you wouldn’t exist to read this blog. We evolved to be able to get other people to do what we want.

But, how do people get other people to do what they want?

Out in the world, animals find what they need to survive and reproduce by manipulating their environments. If an action has good consequences (a bird pecks at a bird feeder), the animal is likely to do the action again. If the action has bad consequences (a bird pecks at a cat’s tail), they are less likely to do it in the future.  People use this common feature of all minds that’s been around for half a billion years to get others to do what they want, using reward and punishment.

Rewards and punishments are the positive and negative consequences we give to others, and they’re incredibly powerful. Any animal, including a boyfriend, can learn any behavior they are capable of doing, using simple training tools. Using food rewards, trainer Ilana Bram trained Erasmus, a little albino fish, to go through hoops, play with a miniature soccer ball, do the limbo under a tiny bar, and play a creativity game, inventing totally novel ways of pushing, pulling, or swimming through a rubber bracelet every few seconds. I worked at a research center in Georgia where monkeys solved complex computer puzzles: Correct answers got a banana or piña colada pellet as a reward; wrong answers got a blank screen and a minute of boredom. Science didn’t know how smart, creative, and motivated fish, monkeys, or people were until they saw what they did for reinforcement. People don’t usually work for piña colada pellets or fish food, but the same reinforcement principles apply. The reinforcements and punishments that people provide to each other in romantic relationships, even just a smile, are some of the most powerful in any relationship.

In upcoming posts I’ll discuss the high training stakes for women in particular over evolutionary history and some of the differences that I think make women much better at training than men. That will explain the most frequently asked question: "Why is it called How to Train Your Boyfriend? Don't men train women, too?"