Intermittent Reinforcement: Why We Keep Going to a Dry Creek Bed Looking for Water
Towards the end of my drinking, I went out to a bar near my apartment with a book and a plan to have two glasses of wine. I had three, but overall the night was a win. Three was basically two after all. I walked home, smoked some weed, and went to bed. Nothing bad happened. I woke up without a hangover.
How could this happen to a late-stage alcoholic? And why couldn’t I stop thinking about it? The time I drank and it was nice and nothing bad happened?
The answer is intermittent reinforcement. Alcoholism does not mean that every time you drink it ends badly and out of control. It means that once I start drinking, I lose control over whether or not it’s going to be a controlled drinking session.
From ScienceDirect.com: “Intermittent reinforcement is more resistant to extinction, meaning that if individuals remember occasionally checking the mirror and liking what they see in the past, they may continue to engage in mirror checking for a long time even though they infrequently get good results.”
This system of reward and punishment is more alluring than consistency. Alcoholism, like an abusive lover, knows that it cannot knock you down every day if you are to remain in the relationship. This is how people stay — in relationship with abusers and with their various addictions — and sometimes both. It even works on rats — rats that press a lever that distributes food occasionally will become obsessed with that lever, while the levers that consistently either dispense or don’t dispense food are less alluring.
When I think back on all my relapses, it’s the rare good times — or, more accurately, not bad times, that my brain wants me to remember. The car crashes, job flameouts, peeing on the side of the road in Manhattan at 4 am on a Wednesday, finding myself in unsafe situations with men, losing friends and places to live and faith in myself — although these were the rule and not the exception, the good times lead my brain to believe that if I could just figure out the formula, I could have that three glass of wine and a book night whenever I want.
The consequences of my use seem like bad luck. I think of the mistakes I made that have nothing to do with the only real mistake — that I knew I was an alcoholic and drank again anyway. I think well I was in a bad mood, or, with the wrong people, or, Klonopin makes me mean, or, I shouldn’t have mixed hard liquor with Red Bull. I once relapsed on organic hard cider because I’d heard some idiots from a MLM scheme say that it was grounding to have a cider at night. I once relapsed on saki because someone called it a spiritual tonic.
My first cocaine run the guy I was dating would wake up and say his nose and throat hurt so much from the air conditioning and too many cigarettes. Our brains want us to believe that we can just press the lever the right way, in the right sequence, a certain number of times, and regain control over the randomness of reward.
We can’t. It is part of the human condition that negative events stick like velcro while positive events slide off like Teflon. This is not so in the realm of intermittent reinforcement. It is the exact opposite. It is Wonderland, and we fall down that hole every time, eventually, never knowing when it will be. If this is how our brains function in terms of addiction, what can we do about it? Should we just throw up our hands and accept an alcoholic fate? It helped me so much just to have a name for this phenomenon, to understand that this was not just some weird thing that I do, to see the lie it tells.
Defining my alcoholism as not “every time I drink it’s bad” but “every time I drink I have no control over how it’s going to be” is humbling and powerful. The brain wants us to think that we are not really alcoholic because it’s not bad every time, because the addicted mind wants to keep going in it’s addiction. Vigilance is key. It’s easy to forget until some pain forces us to remember. And then, in sobriety, this still crops up with a million faces.
We find ourselves in situations with people, places, and things that operate on that principle. Any time I am trying to figure out how to control something that I know in my heart I have no control over the outcome of, I am operating from this place. There are no series of dance moves that can unlock the way an abuser treats us, whether that abuser is alcohol, a slot machine, or a human being.
It’s important to take this into consideration when we look at these things — because something that isn’t bad every time doesn’t make it not a problem. It’s not being able to control when it is bad and when it works out to our benefit.