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The Lure of the Unpredictable Lover

Why we want what we can only sometimes get

The brain’s reward centers often play havoc with our innermost desires. It only takes one or two times for them to form associations between random events in the outside world and something that feels so good we can’t stop craving more.

Neuroscientists know a great deal about what happens in the brain when we’re overwhelmed with pleasure, and for the most part, it involves a the rush of dopamine . What’s much less clear is exactly why different people’s reward centers respond so differently to so many different triggers. That designer bag that sends off fireworks deep in your subcortex may leave your friend’s gray matter cold and unresponsive. Your friend’s neurons may, in contrast, turn red hot just thinking about the latest Tiffany catalog that arrived on her front doorstep. Marketers would love to figure out the magic bullet that will get things rolling in each and everyone’s reward centers, but for the moment, they have to rely on the shotgun approach that reaches the widest possible audience. One discovery that marketers made many years ago, however, still holds for almost every consumer. If they want you to want something, they just have to make it temporarily unavailable (iPhone 5 buyers, sound familiar?).

Unavailability still holds great sway in the world of the heart. Remember Charlie Brown, who spent many of his precious childhood moments aching for the infinitely unreachable red-headed girl? His pain, like ours, is made far worse by the fact that we can see, but not have, that most perfect creature.

The yearning we have for what we can’t have is nothing compared to the pain we feel for the desired love objects who got away. Eventually, most people accept the relationship’s ending and find a way to move on. That is, until he or she gives us reason to hope once more. An unexpected call, email, text, or visit and we’re hooked all over again.

In behavioral terms, the ups and downs of relationships with unpredictable lovers can be explained by the unsexy term “partial reinforcement.” When you know that you’ll be rewarded consistently, you’ll learn a behavior quickly, but you’ll become a lazy responder. Lab animals who are rewarded every time they push a lever slow down because they know that the next time they want their reward, it will be waiting for them. However, if they don’t know when their next reinforcer is coming, they’ll keep pushing and pushing that lever in the hopes that one magic press will produce that delicious dried food pellet.

With the growth of brain scanning technology, researchers have now been able to probe into the brains of all kinds of lab animals, including us. Recently, Cornell Medical College psychiatrist Richard Friedman translated into romantic terms the results of a brain scan study by Emory University psychiatrist Gregory Berns and colleagues showing how we respond to unpredictable rewards. In this study, brain scans were conducted while participants were given water or juice. All other things being equal, a reward should be just as rewarding no matter when you get it. However, all things are not equal, and the participants in this study showed the strongest reactions when they didn’t anticipate that they’d be receiving the juice or water. It didn’t even matter whether they liked the water better than the juice. It was the fact that the reward was unexpected that sent their neurons into a tizzy. Making the results even more interesting, the participants didn’t even realize their brains were generating a stronger reaction when the reward was unexpected.

You might have noticed that the Berns article is over 10 years old and since that time, we know a great deal more about the brain’s reward circuits. In fact, Berns has moved on to conducting research in which he is trying to understand how to use brain scan technology in the growing field of neuromarketing . It’s probably only a matter of time before Madison Avenue starts recruiting neuroscience Ph.D.’s just as they used to hire English majors back in the Mad Men days and we’ll all be plugged into a brain scan machine by marketers eager to know which products send our dopamine levels skyrocketing.

We know that our brains make decisions about what we prefer without, or before, we’re consciously aware of what’s going on in there. Apparently, then, we can blame our brains for the strong reactions we have when someone is stringing us along. Not only that, but we don’t even realize what our brains are doing to us. In the Berns study, the brains of the participants responded more strongly to unpredictability apart from their actual preference for the rewarding substance. In the words of the song, your brain isn’t consoled by being “with the one you’re with” when it’s not the “one you want.”

Are we ever fated, then, to be driven by the passions that draw us to unreliable lovers? If we want to be loved in return, should we then become the ones who are unpredictable? If you’re love life is getting stale, should you stop showing up when you’re supposed to just to get the attention of your partner’s brain reward circuits?

On the face of it, the Berns study would seem to suggest that we should manipulate the feelings of those we want to love us by making ourselves inconsistently available. However, for couples to be able to establish long-term rewarding relationships, it’s precisely this unreliability that can destroy rather than build true intimacy bonds. Playing hard to get may be a great strategy for a romantic comedy heroine, but in real life, unpredictability leads our partners to lose faith in our integrity.

The take-away message from this study is clear. If you want to spike your lover’s dopamine levels, then only show up at random, unpredictable intervals. Make your favorite song "Call Me Maybe.: However, dopamine’s rewarding properties may be over-rated. There are plenty of other emotional rewards that you can get from those lasting, predictable relationships. They may lack excitement, but in the long run, they’ll provide you with true fulfillment.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2012


Berns, G.S. McClure, S.M., Pagnoni, G., & Montague, P.R. (2001). Predictability modulates human brain response to reward. The Journal of Neuroscience, 2001, 2793-2798.

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