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The Unique Pain of Random Rewards and Variable Parenting

Getting some of what you want sometimes is often harder than none at all.

Key points

  • Operant conditioning can be at play when we turn to abusive or neglectful caregivers for support.
  • Operant conditioning can be broken, and more healthy, functional choices are possible (with work).
  • Doing this work of undoing operant conditioning is often critical to trauma survivors' healing work.

B.F. Skinner was a renowned American psychologist and behaviorist.

He made great contributions to the fields of psychology and sociology and one of his most helpful theories was that of operant conditioning—a method of learning that employs rewards and punishments for certain behaviors.

Skinner studied and formulated his ideas about operant conditioning using rats and pigeons in a “Skinner Box” during the mid-20th century.

Effectively, Skinner tested patterns of responses by providing or withholding rewards for his test subjects across varying intervals and frequencies.

His work is complex and fascinating but one of the takeaways from his study that strikes me the most is that:

“Skinner found that the type of reinforcement which produces the slowest rate of extinction (i.e., people will go on repeating the behavior for the longest time without reinforcement) is variable-ratio reinforcement.”

Variable ratio reinforcement means, in lay terms, sometimes a reward is provided, and sometimes it isn’t.

To paraphrase Forrest Gump, in these situations, you never know what you’re going to get.

This unpredictability of reward is what keeps the test subject engaged with the behavior the longest, delaying the behavioral “extinction” (e.g., stopping the behavior).

Analogously, I think Skinner’s findings can, for some of us, apply to our patterns of engagement with our family of origins.

For those who turn to their families and consistently receive care, love, and support, these folks will, of course, learn through this kind of operant conditioning that they can consistently receive this “reward” from their families and will consistently go back for more.

For those who turn to their families and consistently receive absolutely nothing in return (no love, no goodwill, no help of any kind, no nothing), they will also learn through the principles of operant conditioning that this “source” can’t be counted upon (e.g., punishment) and their “behavior” of turning to them for help will likely extinguish through this experience of consistent “punishment.”

But what about those who turn to their families of origin for support and sometimes get love, care, goodwill, and support (reward) and then, at other times, receive shaming, derision, a lack of empathy, and a lack of safety (punishment)?

What about those who receive proverbial random rewards from variable parenting? What then?

Inevitably, there is suffering.

There is suffering that is utterly unique to having the experience of “random rewards” and variable parenting across time.

It’s a kind of suffering that can make you feel crazy and foolish for having thought that this time things would finally be different.

That maybe he or she could show up for you when you needed them.

After all, they did once before, and it felt so good. Like a missing piece of you clicked back into place when you finally had their love and help.

So maybe they will show up for you again? Yes? No?

Drawing a parallel to a well-known saying—"stop going to the hardware store for milk"—experiencing variable parenting is a lot like sometimes you go to the hardware store and they have milk and it’s just what you need—sweet liquid relief. So you go back again when you’re thirsty, hoping that there will be milk for you again, but there isn’t. And you’re utterly parched.

It’s a hardware store that sometimes looks and acts like a grocery store but then sometimes doesn’t.

It’s the principle that keeps people glued to slot machines and it’s the principle that keeps some of us turning towards our families of origin in moments of need.

I share all of this with my therapy clients and with you to help you see that you’re not crazy; you’re not naive for turning towards your family of origin for support.

You’re “just” experiencing the type of operant conditioning that’s the hardest to “break” (so to speak).

And coupled with operant conditioning and the principles it teaches us, there’s the completely normal and natural impulse to want to turn to those who birthed and raised you when you’re vulnerable and in need.

That’s totally normal and natural.

But also, at some point, we may have to ask ourselves: What is the cost to me if I keep engaged in this cycle of random rewards and variable parenting? Is it worth it?

No one besides you can identify at what point it may no longer be worth it to stay engaged in a cycle of random rewards—only you are the expert of your experience and only you will know when this operant conditioning pattern is no longer serving you.

And when and if you decide that staying engaged in that operant conditioning cycle is no longer working for you, and after we’ve helped you grieve and accept your reality, analogous to Skinner’s rats, we must then focus energy and attention on helping you get your proverbial “cheese” from more consistent sources and help you cope with the inconsistent sources.

We do this by recalibrating our expectations and cultivating emotional regulation tools and choices with boundaries to support ourselves when we’re in contact with them.

And we do this, too, through identifying, finding, forming, and keeping healthy, functional relationships that give us reparative relationship experiences, including the re-mothering and re-fathering that we’re so psychologically hungry for.

If you would like support in doing this work yourself, Psychology Today has a wonderful directory of trauma-informed clinicians who can support you in this work.

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