Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How to Give Your Date a Cookie

How to use positive reinforcement in dating.

Key points

  • To use reinforcement with someone means to do something after they perform a behavior that makes them want to do it again.
  • One can intentionally or unintentionally reinforce another person's behavior.
  • Thoughtful reinforcement given to a date or romantic partner can enhance the interaction in a positive way.

Welcome back to The Attraction Doctor.

I'm taking a small break from "Defense Against Manipulative Dating Games" to discuss a more positive and proactive way to interact with your dating partner. A way of "nipping problems in the bud" before they occur. I'm going to teach you all how to "give your date a cookie."

Here is the scenario: You go out and meet someone, start out having a wonderful time, and 15 minutes into the conversation, you realize that they have become boring, grumpy, a jerk, etc. Maybe that has even happened with your long-time boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse on occasion. They seem to switch from pleasant to annoying before you even know what happened.

You know what else? It could be partially your fault.

Too often, we're quick to blame someone else when things go sour. It's easy to point out what they "did wrong". But, we seldom look at what we did to influence their behavior (or what we didn't do). And, despite how ineffective we might feel at times, we can have a very big impact on the behavior of our dates and partners.

Sometimes the difference between a good date (or partner) and a bad one is a little technique. All it takes is a "cookie."

Using Reinforcement

In psychology, reinforcement is a method that uses a "stimulus" (e.g. gestures, words, rewards, food, etc.) to increase the probability of a behavior. Basically, it is giving another person something, after they perform a behavior, that makes them want to do it again. For example, if a kid gets an A on his homework, then his mother rewards him with a cookie. The cookie "reinforces" the desired behavior (getting an A). As a result, the kid performs the behavior again, because he wants another A paper and another cookie!

Well, this process also occurs in dating. In fact, we're doing it constantly. Most people are just not doing it consciously. Here is an example:

Suppose a man goes out on a date with his lovely girlfriend. He is discussing the usual topics. She is paying attention to him, smiling, and laughing (sometimes). These reactions from her are reinforcing to him because he is attracted to her and likes her attention. Therefore, when she's paying attention to him, laughing, and smiling, he keeps talking about whatever it is that he's talking about. He wants another cookie (more attention, smiles, etc.). When she looks away, he finds a different topic to get her attention back. His behavior is influenced by the reinforcement of her attention. As a result, he keeps talking about the things she likes.

The Problem With Unintentional Reinforcement

Unfortunately, most reinforcement in dating situations is not intentional. As a result, "cookies" are given and undesirable behaviors are unknowingly encouraged. For example:

Let us suppose the man is now being particularly "distracted" on this date. Maybe he had a bad day. His date tries every topic to get his attention. She may flirt, talk about cars, etc. Still no attention. Then, perhaps she gets annoyed (gimme a cookie!). In her frustration, she insults her date. Oops! But, wow, it actually "gets his attention." The guy even gives a little weird giggle (because he's embarrassed). But, it is still attention. That means it is still a cookie (reinforcement). So, she proceeds to be "reinforced" in her insulting...and she berates her date for the rest of the meal. He keeps paying attention to the insults, she keeps getting reinforced to insult by the attention, and the whole process continues through dessert and the car ride home.

That is why you don't rely on "luck" in your social life. You make sure that you're reinforcing the behaviors that you want from the other person. You make sure to intentionally give your date a cookie!

How to Give a Cookie

Here is how to intentionally reinforce good behavior:

  1. Understand the cookie - To truly reinforce, we must first understand what stimuli are reinforcing. We need to find out what your date "likes" and responds to in a positive way. There are a lot of individual differences, so you may need to try a few things until you see what works. Generally though, "basic needs" such as food, water, kind treatment, appreciation, light complements, respect, and comforting (non-creepy) touch are all good for reinforcement.
  2. Time the cookie - A behavior must be reinforced after it is performed—and soon after. This associates the behavior with the reward. So, pay attention! Give them the cookie as soon as they are behaving in the way you like. When they are being polite, make eye contact and smile. When they are taking out the trash, give them a kiss. When they talk to you pleasantly for a while, then buy them a drink and tell them you appreciate the good company.
  3. Withhold the cookie - Not every behavior gets a cookie, only the ones we'd like to see again. If your date is freezing you out, or your partner is being a nag, then they don't get a cookie until the attitude changes. When you do something good while someone is behaving badly, you are only reinforcing the bad behavior. Don't do it. Instead, ignore them until they are more pleasant. Or, better yet, find some small part of their behavior that you do like, and reinforce that.
  4. Repeat the cookie (with variety) - Cookies don't work as well when they are given every single time. So, don't stare like a stalker every time your date says he/she likes you. Take a break now and then. Mix up the types of cookies. Smile at one joke. Laugh at the next. Skip one. Touch arm on the next. No one likes the same cookie over and over. Plus, we all appreciate a cookie more when we have to work a little harder to get it. So, skipping a cookie now and then is okay too (called a "variable ratio schedule").


Don't rely on luck or random, unintentional reinforcement. That only leads to trouble. Next time you're having a good date, give them a cookie! When your partner does something you like, don't forget to...give them a cookie! Cookies make the world go around. Let me know how they work for you.

© 2011 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D.

More from Jeremy Nicholson M.S.W., Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today