As a neuroscientist, I am fascinated by mental health, consciousness and perception, as well as the psychology behind human relationships.
The Allure of Uncertainty
We grow up erroneously assuming that kind, loving and stable individuals are the most attractive, when we are actually wired to hold people in higher regard if they are slightly erratic and unpredictable in their treatment of us.
Do you wish people craved your presence like a drug? Intermittent reward is the opium of the masses; no single living mammal is immune to its enticement. Whether you are a mouse pressing a lever to obtain food, a child desiring attention from an absent father or an adult married to a narcissist, all forms of reward are deemed more salient and exciting if offered rarely and randomly. We yearn for them, wait for them and experience dopaminergic bliss when we receive them.
Switching between extreme kindness and coldness turns people crazy, but intermittent reinforcement also surrounds us in milder forms. Covertly mastering it can transform you into your most fascinating and mysterious self; here are 6 techniques to play with.
1. Vary Your Speech
Speaking in a level, agreeable tone may initially make people feel safe around you, but is a recipe for disaster if you want to be a). romantically intriguing or b). an exciting new friend. If you imagine the most thrilling people in your life, I can guarantee that they all speak with conviction and routinely modulate their pitch to express enthusiasm. Moreover, they most likely have a great command of the English language and rapidly assimilate new vocabulary.
Creating the illusion of being linguistically-inclined is simpler than you may think; all it takes is a witty, off-hand comment made at the right time, or the nonchalant delivery of an amusing anecdote.
When using language expertly and fluidly, you run no risk of seeming dull. Learning a few new adjectives a week and slotting them into your conversations will render you much more charismatic and unpredictable.
2. Maintain A Sharp Edge
We can all relate to having admired someone a little ruder and harsher than us; perhaps it was a brazen friend who lead us astray as a teenager, or a partner who threw the odd insult at us. Our brain equates sharpness with status and desirability; when someone 'puts us in our place' from time to time, our incentive to please them paradoxically increases. When not freely given out, attention and affection become prized commodities.
Children notoriously behave better with an aloof and stern relative compared to when at home, since their adoring parents' frequent praise doesn't hit them hard or engage them; you quickly habituate to all predictable stimuli and tire of anything that is given out readily. In contrast, when a grandma intersperses fierce discipline with boxes of chocolate in an effort to placate a grandchild, she is unknowingly intermittently reinforcing their behavior.
While I would never advocate being malicious, occasionally being a little colder than what feels natural ensures that someone never stops respecting you or appreciating their time with you. In adult terms, this can take the form of:
- slipping in the odd joke or humorous comment that could be interpreted as brusque, e.g. "and you'd know about that, wouldn't you!".
- sometimes tolerating their irritating habits, but other times rolling your eyes or expressing mild contempt (one day in ten).
- if you regularly discuss a topic that you are both passionate about and typically agree on, ensure that you sometimes unexpectedly disagree with their points. This will remind them that they can't predict you and, hence, do not 'possess you'.
3. Occasionally Detach
We are all familiar with the concept that 'nice guys finish last'. Even if the higher parts of our cortex tell us that someone kind who offers unwavering support is a great choice of partner/friend, our limbic brain/reward system steers us towards rewards that are given occasionally. We can only feel enthused by a connection if it comprises a degree of unpredictability.
If you present as the overly-apologetic, 'trusty sidekick' archetype, you will invariably repel partners and friends alike. Have you ever tried to like someone who was constantly present and emotionally-available, only to find yourself inexplicably bored of them?
Along the same trajectory, our eyes are often first opened to the power of sporadic affection during a fling with someone enigmatic and 'dangerous'. What starts off as an exciting break from reality turns into a full-blown love addiction, and we are left oddly incapable of getting over the relationship when it eventually ends.
You may have felt as if you lost a soulmate, but you were hooked purely because a primitive part of you relished their brief offerings of love. As they were often cold to you, their affection flooded your reward system (nucleus accumbens) with dopamine when it did arrive. The goal here is not to subject anyone to similarly damaging intermittent reinforcement cycles, but rather, to realize the importance of being a tad unavailable if you want to seem enchanting. The dose makes the poison!
4. Realize This: You Chase Or Are Chased
The exploitation of intermittent reward is often seen as a powerful manipulation technique used solely by narcissists and sociopaths. Love bombing someone vulnerable before suddenly withdrawing and becoming distant is a surefire way to trigger addiction.
Nonetheless, intermittent reinforcement does not always present so destructively and is, in reality, a feature of all human connections, whether intentionally- or accidentally-inflicted. All of your relationships to date have involved a degree of uncertainty at points, causing one person to question whether they are truly liked/put the other on a pedestal. Even if mild, power balances are intrinsic to all human relationships; either you or the other person is in control at any given time.
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Consider two long-term friends; one (A) is a little 'brighter', colder and more popular than B. Such mismatches in success and confidence are rarely addressed between friends, but the less busy one, B, will treasure the friendship more than A, who will often be irritated by B's constant texts and availability.
B will excuse her friend A's distant behavior for 'her being busy', thinking "at least she manages to find time to see me - I'm lucky to have a friend as successful as her". Unaware of the fact that she is addicted to A's intermittent reinforcement, B will continue to chase A, which only pushes her away and exacerbates their toxic dynamic.
You must study your own relationships objectively and see whether you tend to assume the role of A or B. In the healthiest romantic and platonic connections, these roles are alternated regularly, allowing for sustainable, mutual satisfaction and interest. Ensure you are never chasing for more than a few days!
5. Surprise Them (Every So Often)
As someone who used to fall repeatedly for unstable, hot-and-cold individuals, I can pinpoint what catalyzed the conversion of my admiration for them into full-fledged addictions: they all knew how to 'reward' me in a way that hit hard, before detaching or disappearing.
These men and women understood me on a spiritual level and knew how to enliven my soul with unpredictable offerings or conversations. After periods of radio silence and zero attention, they would either gifted me something very sentimental or initiate a deep, emotional conversation. Irrespective of the form that they took, these rewards would keep me hooked and allow me to believe the falsehood that 'this time I had my partner secured'.
One man presented me with a collection of poems that he claimed were 'inspired by me', featuring his own intricate and beautiful illustrations. Bizarrely, however, he reassumed a neutral stance towards me the next day and was even actively rude at points. I was left fretting over whether he actually appreciated me at all: "he's given me such a romantic present, but has turned cold - are we getting married, or are we strangers?". To my great annoyance, despite knowing exactly why I was so obsessed with his affection (hint: it was rare and intense!), I struggled to leave the toxic relationship for months.
Do not subject anyone to such humiliation, I beg! Do, however, let it sink in that people will value you immensely (without realizing why) if you occasionally reach out to promote intense connection. If you want your old college friend to contact you more, perhaps send them a special birthday letter one year on a whim, before resuming your normal, sporadic rhythm of texting. If your spouse is acting distant, try to engage in a meaningful conversation one night over dinner, reminiscing about how you two met.
6. Gain Control of Communication
By this point, the extent to which intermittent reinforcement forms the basis of our judgments and 'gut feelings' about people has probably dawned on you. You warm to and cherish certain people not due to ineffable, spiritual ties, but because they are a). likeminded enough to you to trigger positive emotions and b). never completely predictable.
Intermittent reinforcement occupies a place of particular prominence in the world of social media. Messages offer an instant 'hit' of reward; the unexpected absence of them will make someone wonder if you uninterested and playing the field, or simply free-spirited and eccentric. Regardless of the conclusion that they come to, a brief period of speculating about your inner wirings will have your partner yearning more for your reciprocated interest.
As with any other power balance modality, one person is always in control of the flow of online communication at any given time. If you exchange long Facebook messages with someone and they are the one to always leave your last paragraphs unread, you are being perceived as more interested and committed than them. Regain control by intentionally cutting the odd conversation short when they least expect it, leaving their stream of messages sitting unopened for a few days.
Taking a break from social media must be executed with caution; you risk pushing someone away if you inconsistently reply for extended periods of time. You must make sure that you are allowing the conversation to naturally flow for the majority of the time and asking questions. No one enjoys 'games', nor will many adults tolerate someone who seems truly disorganized and incapable of finding the time to reply. Fortunately, if you employ this technique imperceptibly and infrequently, you will just seem a little busy, albeit still keen, honest and desirable.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Lucy
Lucy (author) from Leeds, UK on February 24, 2020:
Thanks for the comment, Deborah! It’s disconcerting but true that being unpredictable mentally stimulates the other person.
Deborah Reno from First Wyoming, then THE WORLD on February 23, 2020:
This article is absolutely fascinating.
I can see how being a supportive, encouraging partner might become boring for my husband. I need to up my game a little! Or a lot!!
Lucy (author) from Leeds, UK on August 23, 2019:
I certainly would agree with you and say that truly fickle, inconsistent behaviour is unethical, but am aware that many people deal with unpredictable lovers and friends.
While some may subconsciously feel that the lack of unwavering attention from these people is what gets them so hooked, many remain unaware and adhere to a pattern of disordered relationships for a lifetime.
So, in a sense, this is a tongue-in-cheek article aimed at those very people; though it may initially scream “this is how to attract a partner”, the implicit message is that extreme hot-and-cold behaviour is pathological (hence, personality disorders mentioned).
However, as with all things behavioural, we sit on a spectrum. I don’t endorse narc games, but do I think it is better to be constantly kind and available? No, especially when I am more than aware that many people take advantage of that energy (narcissists especially), before growing bored of you.
The hope is that you would naturally have clear boundaries, say ‘no’ sometimes unexpectedly and radiate a bit of lustre, but some people have shrunk in confidence over the years and may need a little reminder that it is never too late to respect yourself more and change your reality. So, in that sense you are correct - I am not against using neuroscience insights to slightly improve your relationships/give yourself a little more ‘bounce’. Hope this makes sense!
Anon5371 on August 23, 2019:
I enjoyed reading this article, but I was wondering if you could clarify whether you believe that the techniques you mention are ethical. In my opinion, it's unacceptably manipulative to deliberately play hot and cold to make someone feel a certain way about you, no different in principle from spiking their drink with a love potion. But maybe as a neuroscientist you have a different perspective on taking advantage of psychology to make people feel a certain way.