To love is to suffer; to be happy is to love. So must one suffer to be happy? This syllogism won’t win any prizes in logic, but it accurately describes a curious paradox of human behaviour: the allure of unpredictable romantic partners.
How many times have you wondered why your friend (or, uh, you) keeps going back to someone who rarely ever treats them right? New York Times writer Richard Friedman explains that part of the reason we’re attracted to bad boys and girls might be the very fact that the good moments come so unexpectedly.
To understand why, we need to consider what happens in the brain when people are given rewards under two different conditions: predicted and unpredicted. The psychiatrist Gregory Berns did just that in a study in which subjects were given fruit juice and water, both naturally pleasurable rewards, while scanning their brains with an M.R.I. During part of each session, subjects received water and fruit juice at random intervals; during another part, the water and juice were administered every 10 seconds.
Professor Berns discovered that the water and juice elicited greater activation in the brain’s reward circuit when the reward was unanticipated than when it was delivered in a predictable fashion. The pattern held true whether the reward was water or fruit juice – even though most subjects claimed a clear preference. In dating terms, sex, cuddling and romantic gestures are the juice and apparently we like it more when we don’t know it’s coming.
I used to date this guy who routinely stood me up when better plans came along, who would be incommunicado for long periods of time and ultimately cheated on me. The two times he was sweet to me – once he surprised me with a new purse when my previous one had been stolen and another time he took care of me when I had a cold — had me stick with him for an embarrassingly long time despite the almost constant disappointment.
For a long time after, I was ashamed of myself for putting up with his horrible behavior 90% of the time just to experience his rare sweet side. On top of that, I was confused as to why I did this.
“Since unpredictable rewards cause more dopamine release than predictable ones and more dopamine means more pleasure, one implication of this study is that people experience more pleasure with unpredictable rewards than with predictable ones – but they may not be consciously aware of this fact.”
So the scary bonus to this theory is that what actually makes us happy – haphazard reward – is contrary to what we truly believe makes us happy, i.e. reliable, considerate partners.
Should we throw in the towel and stop trying to date who’s good for us? We’re born this way, after all. Friedman says no.
“We use conscious knowledge to override our unhealthy or undesirable impulses all the time,” he writes. “Except for a few limited circumstances, we are expected to be in charge of our brains.”
Still, it should help us understand those friends who find themselves drawn to unpredictable romantic partners. They are not necessarily gluttons for pain or disappointment; they might be addicted to the hidden pleasure of inconstant love.
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