Dating for twisted Skinnerians (is there any other kind?).

I have thought of another (non-misogynistic) story about how “playing hard to get” might be conducive to romantic success.

Displays of affection are, of course, reinforcing. Rather powerfully reinforcing indeed. And there’s a sickening amount of psych literature about the effect of strongly conditioning a certain behavior (like reciprocal displays of affection) and then withdrawing it. It’s fully of grim stories like rats bashing their brains out on the pellet button.

And here’s the really grim thing for “playing hard to get.” Skinner found that behaviors conditioned by intermittent reinforcement are much harder to extinguish than behaviors conditioned by continuous reinforcement.

You can see where we’re going here. Suppose that Z and Y (because I refuse to use A and B for “alpha” and “beta”) are starting a romantic interaction, and Z(“eta”) is less committed to the relationship than Y(“eta”) is, for whatever reason — perhaps Zeta is less attracted to Yeta than vice versa, or Z is screwed in the head and unable to love, or Y is insecure and desperate, whev. … or perhaps Z is consciously or unconsciously engaging in profoundly unethical manipulation.

We can easily imagine that “playing hard to get” might manifest in the form of Y engaging in displays of affection that reflect his/her emotions, and Z reinforcing that behavior only intermittently in the form of his/her own displays of affection. Or reinforcing it a lot initially and then withdrawing the reinforcement later. And in response, Y sends more and more behaviors of affection. Welcome to the Skinner box.

It’s also well known that, in many cases, human emotions follow the behavior meant to express that emotion, rather than the other way around. Smiling makes people happy, for example. Why that is, I’m less clear on. (The cynic in me wants to say “cognitive dissonance reduction,” but the rest of me says “wait till the psychologists tell you.”) And we can quickly see where this is going for poor Y, and how miserable Y’s life is about to get.

That silly Robert Greene book (“I’m not a psychologist! But I’ve read lots of literature! Let me tell you how it really is!”), The Art of Seduction, seems to describe a character (the coquette) who behaves like this.

And I’m sure that this is nothing new — were I able to be arsed to fire up google scholar, I could probably find dozens of papers talking like this. But it has some relevance for the analysis of the claim of “game” advocates and the like that playing hard to get is a successful dating strategy.

It also has some rather heavy relevance for the ethical implications of “game.” Namely, that it’s absolutely and extremely unethical if this is the way it works. That’s the other point of starting out with a rational choice analysis (yes Mike, game theory is good!) of the claimed phenomena. If we can understand the functioning (to the extent there is any, of course) of this “game” business in rational choice terms as a signaling game and so forth then we might think that the free wills of its targets are at least a little bit involved — at worst, the gamer would be guilty of sending misleading data about mating values. But if it’s more a matter of yanking people around with operant conditioning, it starts to look downright evil. In Kantian terms, you’re really not treating the humanity in the victim of operant conditioning as an end even in the slightest.

And yes, I seriously wake up in the morning and start thinking like this. Folks, your host is a very cynical young man.


15 Responses to “Dating for twisted Skinnerians (is there any other kind?).”

  1. ben wolfson Says:

    “Yeta”? Please: “Yamma”.

    Observation dating from a year ago: the job market plays hard to get in precisely this intermittent-reinforcement fashion.

  2. Paul Gowder Says:

    Clearly, then, one needs to play hard to hire.

  3. ben wolfson Says:

    Send in your applications incomplete, show up late for your interview and deride the questions…

  4. Paul Gowder Says:

    But occasionally dropping in a reinforcing brilliancy. Yes.

  5. Mike Says:

    Evil? I think that’s too black-or-white. We’re talking about seduction, not kidnapping someone so as to give them Stockholm Syndrome.

    And the couple remains in love. Isn’t being in love a desirable state of affairs?

    Also…. back to game as being something learnable: What if a person just naturally with holds affection. That is, it’s in the very nature of that person to with hold affection. Is that person evil for behaving according to his nature?

    As people, we manipulate and are manipulated daily. To me, that’s not evil – or even close to evil. Just as telling your older-looking friend that she looks younger isn’t evil, even though it’s actually a lie.

    I think you need to look at ends before you can call something evil. If you’re manipulating someone to crush her, well, that might be evil. If you’re manipulating someone so she can become happier, then I don’t think we can call that evil – at least not right away.

  6. Paul Gowder Says:

    How can the couple be in love when one partner is manipulating the other?

    I mean, if that’s love, then I’m going to go all the way and deny that there is such a thing, which is a position I’ve been considering for a while.

    But, anyway, I think someone can be evil for behaving according to his or her nature (consider psychopaths), and I also think it’s possible to be evil for doing something which, were it in one’s nature, would not be evil. (Consider your own beliefs about meat: the tiger isn’t doing anything wrong by eating meat, surely, but you think we are.)

  7. Aaron Says:

    The strategy is to be self assured; it isn’t to manipulate. Sure, someone in possession of this knowledge could manipulate, but it isn’t necessary. Just be self assured, and don’t dote and obsess and whore yourself with flowers and offers to buy drinks.

    Also, I think this post supports the ‘chicks dig jerks’ theory. I remember reading recently that you don’t like this theory, but I think your post here explains why it could be true.

  8. ben wolfson Says:

    If you’re manipulating someone so she can become happier, then I don’t think we can call that evil – at least not right away.

    Nevertheless, the position that manipulating people to make them happier is just peachy is pretty suspect.

  9. Paul Gowder Says:

    Also, since when are the victims of this kind of manipulation “happy?” Anyone who has been in this kind of “she loves me, she loves me not” relationship can tell you that it’s an emotional roller coaster, periods of joy mixed with periods of misery, not unmixed “becoming happier.”

  10. Paul Gowder Says:

    Aaron: sure, but only to the extent it also explains the “dudes dig jerks” theory too — that is, it’s gender-neutral.

  11. Mike Says:

    Nevertheless, the position that manipulating people to make them happier is just peachy is pretty suspect.

    That’s what good managers do. Bring your employees cookies or whatever. It will boost morale, which often boosts productivity. The manager didn’t bring the employees cookies because he liked them. It was a play. Still, manipulation = everyone is happy.

    “she loves me, she loves me not”

    I think that’s too extreme of a formulation. I don’t think game would advocate that approach at all. That’s a bad long-term strategy. Few would remain in a long-term relationship (we’re talking marriage, life partners, etc) in those circumstances.

    Game would simply instruct one to not worship the flower of his heart 24/7. But you don’t necessarily pull your love away. You just take a step back.

    In matters of love, everything is a matter of degree.

    That’s why learning seduction (and persuasion in general) is so much fun! You really do need to practice, and learn nuances, to get really good at it.

    Hell, talk to some good jury trial lawyers. They’ll all tell you they sucked at first. After years and decades, they figured this persuasion stuff out.

    Which is why reducing everyone to a rule is challenging. Gerry Spence has certain rules for jury selection. But he’ll break them all. Yet he’s still the man. It’s because he’s fluid.

    Persuasion requires one to be fluid, like a boxer. Getting this fluidity takes time.

  12. Mike Says:

    The strategy is to be self assured; it isn’t to manipulate

    You’ve got the right idea. Game, ultimately, is about *you*, not *them*. It’s something you become rather than something you do to others. Focusing on others is artificial, ultimately.

    Game is something you need until you have it. Once you have game, game does not exist. But, in the mean time, you need game.

    It’s like Wittenstein’s ladder. “My propositions are all elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed through them, on them, over them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)”

    Once you have game, you realize game is nonsense. Of course, that doesn’t seem to make sense. But it does.

  13. ben wolfson Says:

    Most inappropriate adducing of W’s ladder ever?

  14. Mike Says:

    If you think so, then you should read about Wittgenstein’s mysticism, especially as is evidenced in Tractatus.

  15. ben wolfson Says:

    Uh huh. Do you have any recommendations for me?

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