The Hidden Workings of “When It’s Good, It’s Great”

Have you ever mistaken a label for an explanation? I have.

I once asked a physician about the annoying little tremor in my hands. I told her I’d had it all my life, as did my father.

“Don’t worry,” she said in a confident tone. “Those are just benign familial tremors.”

“Oh,” I said as if she had shared meaningful information.

It wasn’t until I left the building that I realized she had told me precisely nothing about why my hands shake. She merely gave me a label.

For a few minutes, though, I felt like I understood something new. Silly me. Since then, I have been careful to keep labels and explanations separate, like cranberry sauce and gravy on my Thanksgiving plate. They can sit side-by-side, but they should never get intimate.

This question of labels-versus-explanations came to mind recently while working on a section of the next book. It has to do with factors that keep people stuck in bad relationships.

This section has some mildly complex information about patterns of reinforcement. It’s stuff most non-psychologists don’t study. I was curious what my readers might already know about it, so I ran this poll on Twitter.

Twitter Poll

Let’s pause and define a couple terms.

Dopamine: A neurotransmitter found in pathways between the midbrain, limbic system, and cortex. Among other functions, it is associated with motivating us toward things we find rewarding. I would be lying if I said I understood much beyond that.

Variable-ratio reinforcement: You know how a slot machine pays out once in a while, but not consistently? That’s variable-ratio reinforcement. This I understand.

As long as we feel confident there will be a reward at some point, and as long as the cost of each attempt is relatively low, we will keep trying until we get the next reward. (1)

In most scenarios, this is a low-cost strategy to gain resources. You can keep fishing until you catch something; keep foraging until you find food; keep approaching the opposite sex until you get lucky. Just keep trying.

Variable-ratio reinforcement works on people, dogs, rats, and pigeons. It is one of the most potent non-pharmacological ways to maintain a behavior.

Those two definitions differ in character. The first one has to do with how we are built. It’s about structure. The second has to do with how we work. It’s about function.

Structure, like labels, can be easy to grasp without telling us anything useful. Consider these statements:

  • Bats can fly because they have pectoral muscles.
  • Cats can hunt because they have optic nerves.
  • Race cars can go fast because they have gas tanks.
  • People can gamble because they have dopamine systems.

None of them answer the question, why? If we point to dopamine as an explanation for behavior, we’re simply using a label in place of an answer. Knowing bats have pecs doesn’t tell us why they go to the effort of flying. Knowing people have dopamine systems doesn’t tell us why they gamble. (2) 

Nor does it tell us the conditions under which a person is likely to engage in other compulsive behaviors. That’s a handy bit of knowledge because sometimes the just-keep-trying strategy works against us. It can also be weaponized by people who want to take advantage.

However, if we understand function, then we can understand when and why we are susceptible to getting stuck in a cycle of variable-ratio reinforcement, like a compulsive gambler. That, in turn, let’s us see it as it’s happening and step away — or better yet, step away before it happens.

Getting back to the original question about being stuck in unhealthy relationships, variable-ratio reinforcement is one factor. It’s obviously not the only factor, but neither is it trivial.

Have you ever heard someone say something like this about their relationship?

”When it’s good, it’s great.”

That statement generally means the relationship is crap most of the time, but every once in a while there’s a fantastic payoff.

A few examples:

  1. A couple argues aggressively on a routine basis. It usually ends in bitterness that takes days to resolve. But every once in a while, the fight ends with amazing make-up sex. Jackpot.
  2. A man is stuck in a cycle of trying to please a disapproving and ungrateful wife. His effort is usually met with dismissal or complaints. But every once in a while, she shows real gratitude. Jackpot.
  3. A woman with an alcoholic husband endures weekly adventures into his shameful, drunken exploits. Friends and family can’t understand why she tolerates his embarrassing behavior. But every once in a while, he showers her with contrition and heartfelt promises of a loving future. Jackpot.

Each of those randomly placed, periodic rewards keeps the person coming back for more. Obviously, that’s not the only factor. With humans, it never is. Nevertheless, it’s useful to shine a light on any factor that maintains self-destructive behavior. Does it matter if dopamine is involved? Not to me.

Structure is interesting. It’s worth studying. Understanding function, however, is where the smart money’s at. It’s the difference between knowing what a car is, and knowing how to drive.


1. An ideal variable-reinforcement schedule finds the balance between effort per attempt and the ideal range of denials between rewards. However, things can get much more complex than that — something I’m sure slot-machine designers understand better than I do. For a little taste of that complexity, see D.P. Field, F. Tonneau, W. Ahearn, and P.N. Hineline. 1996. “Preference Between Variable-Ratio and Fixed-Ratio Schedules: Local and Extended Relations.” Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 66:283-295.

2. Unfortunately, media and advertisers often explain behavior with meaningless descriptions of neurotransmitters. The most obvious example is the serotonin hypothesis of depression, which is pushed by the pharmaceutical industry. There does not appear to be much empirical support for that hypothesis, yet I’m sure we have all heard its associated (and nonsensical) explanation for depression: “chemical imbalance.” For some interesting background, see J.R. Lacasse and J. Leo. 2005. “Serotonin and Depression: A Disconnect between the Advertisements and the Scientific Literature.” PLoS Medicine 2:1211-1216.