The Most Powerful Motivator on the Planet: Intermittent Reinforcement

There’s nothing like the bliss and elation of new love — and when you believed you had found “the one,” that took it to a whole new level. It was as if the world went from black-and-white to color, and you felt more alive than ever. It seemed that magic was at work in your life, and you didn’t question it; you only felt grateful for your good fortune.

And then one day something unexpected happened. You got the distinct and troubling feeling that the love of your life was pulling away. Your heart tightened and your stomach clenched with dread.

In the process of the psychopathic bond, the moment when the joy at finding love turns into the fear of losing it is called the “manipulative shift.” When that happens, the psychopath takes control.

The dread we feel can be allayed by only one person, who is of course the one who caused the fear in the first place. We feel an incredible sense of relief — a high, even — when the manipulator acts like our attentive and loving partner again. Bliss returns, but doesn’t last long. Fear of loss grips us once more.

If fear is something we want to avoid, how does a psychopath use it to keep us hooked? By alternating it with another extremely powerful emotion: Love.

Creating fear of losing the relationship — and then relieving it with episodes of love and attention — is a powerfully effective manipulation known as intermittent reinforcement. Its power comes from euphoria-inducing dopamine released by our brains when our fear is relieved and replaced by love. We’re back on top of the world.

Have you ever gone to a casino and played a slot machine? You feed in your quarters and pull the handle, over and over, and watch the little colorful images of fruit and numbers and bells whiz by. If you don’t win anything you start to fear that you might lose all the money you already put in, let alone not win the jackpot.

Even though you risk losing more money, you are compelled to keep trying to win. What if you walk away from this machine now, after investing all this time and money, and the next person to sit down and pull the handle wins? You feed in a few more quarters, pull the handle and — amazingly — images of a red number 7 line up and bells ring while colorful lights flash. Handfuls of quarters pour loudly from the machine into your waiting hands. These rewards cause your brain to light up, too, by releasing a burst of pleasure-inducing dopamine, and you want more. Your fear vanishes, and you think that since you now have all these quarters you should keep playing. Who knows, maybe you’ll win the big jackpot next time! You start feeding the machine again. You’re hooked.

Psychology researchers have long considered intermittent reinforcement the most powerful motivator on the planet. It is also the most manipulative. Intermittent reinforcement is simply unpredictable random rewards in response to repeated behavior, but there is no more powerful formula to get someone to feel or act in a desired way. It can be elevated gradually (and subtly) to increasingly extreme levels, creating compliance that is obsessive and even self-destructive. I think this comes as no surprise to many of us. When we look back, we clearly see that intermittent reinforcement was hard at work.

Photo of a cute lab rat, to illustrate the concept of intermittent reinforcement.

The more infrequently the crumbs of love are offered, the more hooked you get. You become conditioned, like a rat in a laboratory cage. When rats are taught to press a lever that randomly dispenses a delicious morsel, they press the lever obsessively. After a while, they will keep pressing the lever even if no more morsels come out… until they starve to death (I think this is an unconscionable experiment, by the way, one probably carried out by psychopathic researchers).

Similarly, we may have held on even when there was no more “love” to be had.


Lab rats are taught to press the lever by starting them out with continuous positive reinforcement. In the beginning, every time they press the lever they get a morsel (just like the idealization phase, or ‘love-bombing’). Then the researchers change the game — the rat presses the lever, but a morsel isn’t delivered each time anymore, only once in a while.  He is fearful that he won’t get fed but he knows pressing the lever brought food in the past, so he keeps pressing it until he gets some. As long as he gets a morsel once in a while, he keeps pressing it. When the morsels stop coming, he’s sure he’ll get one next time he presses it, or the next time, or the time after that… so he never stops trying.

Intermittent reinforcement plays a big role in traumatic bonding. A trauma bond is a very strong attachment to an abuser that develops not in spite of, but because of the abuse.

“Dutton and Painter have elaborated a theory of ‘traumatic bonding,’ whereby powerful emotional attachments are seen to develop from two specific features of abusive relationships: Power imbalances and intermittent good-bad treatment.”

~Emotional Attachments in Abusive Realtionships

Intermittent reinforcement begins insidiously, and escalates gradually. A phone call or text message doesn’t come when expected. A hand that always held ours as we walked down the street is kept in a pocket instead. They seem to be flirting with someone else, but deny it. For a week, they aren’t in the mood to make love. Little by little,  it only gets worse. Much worse. They give us the silent treatment. They subtly or overtly criticize or demean us for all types of things — our weight,  our age, our dancing, our ideas and opinions, the quirks they formerly claimed to love; or they compare us unfavorably to someone else. They provoke us into emotional meltdowns, and then tell us we’re crazy and it’s got to stop. But there are always the times he or she reverts back to being the loving and attentive partner we knew, loved and trusted. See? All hope is not lost! Those tidbits keep us hanging on through the bad times. Maybe they were right. We were acting insecure or jealous or crazy, and that’s the real problem… or so it seems.

What can we do to prevent from being victimized by intermittent reinforcement in the future?

It was hard to recognize because it emerged later in the relationship, and it was hard to walk away because we were already attached. Also, we may not have been knowledgeable about this powerful manipulation technique. Now we have that knowledge along with experience to go with it, and we can put it to work for us.

Here are some things to keep in mind for future relationships:

  • Trust is based on three things: Predictability, dependability and faith. Predictability is based on the consistency of a partner’s behavior, which is in stark contrast to intermittent good-bad treatment. Dependability is the degree to which you trust your partner to be honest and reliable. Faith represents your conviction that your partner will be responsive to your needs, can be relied upon, and be counted on to behave in a kind and caring manner. Don’t judge these things by how they were at one time, in the past — consider how they are at the present time. Psychopaths are good at gaining our trust, but not good at keeping it.
  • Look for the hallmarks of a healthy relationship: Empathy, emotional intimacy, commitment, consistency, balance, progression, shared values, love, care, trust, and respect.
  • Listen to any alarm bells that go off in your head, and listen to friends and family members whom you know to have your best interest at heart. Don’t ignore them, no matter how much you would like to.
  • Become and stay very conscious of the dynamic of the relationship, and of the part you play in it. Be aware that when you feel chronically insecure, heartsick, anxious or hurt, you can get caught up in the drama caused by manipulation and become blind to the larger dynamics at play.
  • Keep in mind the signs in yourself that you’re being manipulated — it is easier than trying to figure out your partner, who will be lying and making excuses. You can review them in the post, ‘How to Tell if You’re Being Manipulated.” You will not feel like this in a healthy, normal relationship.
  • Work on developing good, clear boundaries now, before you get involved with someone. This is probably the most important thing you can do.

Thank you for reading. Comments are closed.

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“This book told me in a very concise format what I haven’t learned from two years of very expensive psychoanalysis AND a Master’s degree in Counseling. I’m not crazy! My intuition was not wrong… It was such a relief to see the feelings that the victim experiences laid out so clearly along with the characteristic behaviors of the psychopath. I just bought the book today and have already read it twice. I think I finally have the courage to end my emotionally abusive relationship. Anyone involved in a psychopathic relationship will immediately recognize it for what it is.”

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35 thoughts on “The Most Powerful Motivator on the Planet: Intermittent Reinforcement”

  1. The Plummer

    Another home run article. “Intermittent reinforcement” is as powerful a drug as any other addictive drug. It is also about as healthy as a drug also. Always chasing the “high” that the psychopath is notoriously capable of providing( AKA the “Love Bomb”), is absolutely intoxicating, especially when all your efforts of offering love, compassion, and support to the one who is in constant need of rescuing, mostly from themselves and their horrible decisions. They put their happiness and survival on your shoulders, and if you are the type of person to have empathy and a desire to help others succeed in life, hopefully with you, only to discover that you wanted more for them than they actually wanted for themselves, utter confusion and desperation take hold, you are willing to do ANYTHING to gain this person’s constistant approval. But no amount of giving is ever enough. They never seem to be happy with you, and they gain absolute contempt for you. They hate you for being so stupid and such a pushover. Then they believe you deserve all the grief they can muster.

    1. Admin

      It certainly is a powerful drug, one you sound like you know about all too well. It happened so insidiously, didn’t it? First there was the continuous reinforcement of a wonderful time that was without problems. Of course that didn’t last long. Then the IR started; small things at first, and then escalating. I hope the ideas at the end will provide some protection in the future. Be well, Plummer.

      1. The Plummer

        I used to ask her just how hard it must be to think up such evil things to say/do. She’d say that it just comes natural, no thought involved.

        It’s amazing how intellectually inept one can be, but yet be the most cunning, insidious, quick witted. Knows exactly the one right response that cuts the deepest, she could find a raincloud in a desert, every time.

        Never good enough, fast enough, or just “enough”. Apologys were something to be held against you at a later date, ad-infinitum.

        It’s true, you must respect yourself, before you can respect someone else. Sadly these sub humans know they have NOTHING inside worth respecting. It’s all an act, and no actor can ever stay “in character” forever.

        1. Admin

          You’re right, they can’t stay in character for ever. The truth comes leaking out from between the stitches of their seams, which will inevitably burst from the pressure and spew their stuffings on anyone who is near. Now we know what that looks like, and it isn’t pretty. Very glad you are free of this woman.

          1. The Plummer

            Free is but a relative term.

            Yes, I’m free in the sense that I can choose to be mostly no contact, yet with children comes a chain that can never be broken. Divorce freed her, but the obligations upon me yet remain.

            1. Admin

              I remember now — she lied and got the children, and is using the courts to abuse you. I was reading up on this recently, and I wonder what’s going on in the family court system. It seems to me like the courts are part of the problem, like there’s no way they could still be in so much in the dark, almost as if these people keep them in business. I can’t imagine how stressful it must be.

              As free as is possible, then.

              1. The Plummer

                You have a great ability to express things that you have learned. Might I suggest delving into the concept of “cultural Marxism” and the effects it has had on western culture. It has made our culture “satan’s playground, a psychopath’s wet dream.

              2. Admin

                Thank you. I’ll do some delving — sounds like it’s right up my alley.

  2. gia

    this is one of the best posts for me . I can relate to everything I felt and he did to control my emotions. it has been almost a year of no contact. the first part was mourning the loss of the illusion of love. devastating as it was. the stage now is of repulsion for what I allowed to take place, the threats, the extortion, and so on. the fact I could have lost everything including my life leaves me shaking in the middle of the night. but with help I am fighting my way back. thankyou for being part of that help.

    1. Admin

      I’m glad I can be of help, gia. Keep fighting. I wish you all the best on your continuing road to recovery!

  3. Joan G. Connor

    “Oh don’t worry what goes around comes around. He’ll get his”,says my therapist. How can he when he has no real feelings. The innocent victims keep getting destroyed and he just moves on. My husband of 37 years ,love of my life, soul mate and narssisitic psychopath destroyed my life dumped his children and married his next victim before the ink was dry on the divorce papers. He doesn’t understand what our problem is and why we can’t just welcome their new mother into their lives. He still wants to see his grandchildren as they love unconditionally and still think Grandpa is the greatest. I am starting my new life at 68 and very lonely but I keep busy and have wonderful children and grandchildren,not to mention wonderful friends and relatives. I don’t think they have ever even heard of a psychopath except as murderers in a horror movie. We are so alone in this nightmare. I do know others who have experienced this pain and they seem so bitter. I am just sad and lonely. Joan

    1. Admin

      Hi, Joan. I’m sorry to hear of all you’re going through. I think it’s impossible to for others to understand what we’ve experienced if they haven’t experienced it themselves. I’m glad that you have wonderful friends and family members, and I imagine some are being as supportive as they can within their understanding of your situation. 37 years is a long time, and I know that creates challenges I didn’t experience. Even so, I want to say that I fully believe that you do not have to end up permanently bitter. Seek out others who have had a positive outcome, who have overcome any kind of great adversity. Read books about them, watch documentaries and speeches — I think it will give you hope that you can do the same, and give you some idea of how. It is no less than amazing how much resilience we can find we have when we need it. Give yourself time. Going through the really painful emotions eventually allows you to move on to less painful ones, and so forth. We don’t really get over such serious traumas — we get through them. Reminds me of that saying, “You can go through hell, but just don’t get stuck there.” All the best to you.

  4. Asheley

    This post really hit home. I’m so thankful your site exists.

    Good luck to both Gia and Joan, their comments really struck me.

    1. Admin

      Thank you, Ashley. xx

  5. Dee

    This so clearly explains how we get sucked in and then become hopelessly stuck. I wonder if the psychopath consciously knows if s/he is employing methods of mind control? Or, is this pattern of behavior just what they do? I know psychopaths enjoy tormenting victims, but do they actually study mind control techniques to increase the manipulation. Perhaps, since they are experts at human behavior, they’re simply enacting a methodology they know works every time. Psychopaths must see a consistency in how victims react. Part of the devaluation is triangulation. Psychopaths must know how powerful an emotion jealousy is and they use it to make us worry while increasing their level of desirability.

    My ex psychopath used to make me stupid crazy. He would post photos of us and me on Facebook knowing this would make me feel secure and happy to be “The Chosen One,” only to disappear for a few days. When I asked why he disappeared, he would make me feel like a possessive and insecure little girl. He would say: “What more do you want. I’m with you all the time and when I leave your sight for a minute you go crazy.” Then, he’d blame it on my trust issues. A few times he’s use these instances to break-up. We’d get back to gather, until one time I had had enough and I left the relationship,

    1. Admin

      Hi, Dee. I think it’s both — they do it purposely, plus they can’t keep up the act very long because they get bored and start slipping. They study humans, but they don’t need to study techniques because they can figure them out on their own.

      Mine did the same thing — everything was blamed on my insecurity, etc. This is typical of them. It will never happen again — I’ve gotten really good at putting the focus back where it belongs with people who try that maneuver. People will also try to shift the focus to our reaction to their behavior, to distract us from what they did that we were upset about or questioning in the first place. Gotta watch for those things.

      The fact is that most of us are not ‘insecure’ (questioning what’s really going on) in a good relationship, because it’s clear what’s going on. Good relationships don’t have these issues. They’re pretty easy. Someone loves you, and guess what? They act like they do. They don’t disappear for three days and blame you for being upset about it. Glad you saw the light and walked away.

      1. Admin

        Oh, about triangulation — it’s especially malicious. They accomplish three goals at once, from the way I saw my ex-psychopath do it: He tortured me, groomed and seduced his next target, and made himself look more desirable to both she and I. And then of course he got the added bonus of using it to gaslight me by telling me it wasn’t really happening, even though it was happening right in front of me. I knew then that it was a lost cause.

        1. Dee

          Thank you for your reply. Once you figured it all out, how long did it take you to get him out of your mind. I am 2 years out, but I still think of him. I don’t want him back. I am over him, but I don’t think I am over the trauma of him. I still ruminate over how I was duped and I still mourn how I gave so much and surrendered most of my boundaries to him, clinging to the hope that he would be the man I wanted him to be. When we broke up he said, ” You knew what I was, so it’s on you for trying to change me.” I suppose this is true. I knew what he was, but he played the catch and release game with me, promising he could be monogamous time and time again. Now I see he had no intention of being faithful, he just said whatever it took to keep me in the game.

          1. Admin

            It doesn’t make sense to talk about these predators called psychopaths, and how skilled they are at victimizing and manipulating, and how severely we’re traumatized by it, and then claim that we were somehow responsible for it. Both of those things can’t be true at the same time. I realize there is a lot of talk out there about victims needing to ‘take responsibility’ in order to heal, but actually the OPPOSITE is true. As long as someone blames themselves, it means they still don’t really understand what happened. How can we heal from something we don’t understand? You were manipulated into ignoring your boundaries, and manipulated into continuing to hope he’d be the man you wanted him to be. It really is that simple.

            Having said that, it’s not the same as blaming yourself if you decide to figure out what your vulnerabilities were, or work on your boundaries, or learn about cognitive biases. Because we have vulnerabilities or biases isn’t the problem — the problem is that there are people who will take advantage of those things.

            It’s normal to blame yourself for a while, but a really GIANT step in healing comes when you stop doing that because you realize your behavior was created and nurtured by a predator who was a skilled manipulator. I was able to take that giant step after about a year, but I was immersed in it by attempting to bring valid information to the readers here.

            Don’t take it from me — here are the words of Dr. George Simon, an expert on predators and abusive relationships, with a link below:

            “Many folks have told me about how hard it was for them to stop blaming themselves and engaging in a lot of self-doubt and reproach. ‘How could I have been so blind…. or so stupid?’ they ask themselves…But the truth of the matter is that while they might indeed have had some personality characteristics of their own that made them particularly naive and vulnerable (most of us do), the fact is that covert-aggressors are generally quite skilled at what they do, and the more seriously character disturbed social predators among us (i.e. the psychopaths/sociopaths) are extremely astute and talented when it comes to the “art of the con.”…Besides, it’s relatively pointless to play the self-blame game. Lovingly reckoning with your vulnerabilities and vowing to become a stronger person in the aftermath is one thing, but doing an emotional hatchet-job on yourself just because you happened to fall prey to a good con artist is quite another… Still, as hard as it might be, one of the most important tasks for any recovering person has before them is to end the destructive cycle of self-doubt and blame.”
            Life After a Manipulator


            1. Dee

              WOW! Fantastic. Thank you for this. I am so grateful for your wisdom and invaluable insight. It helps a lot. : )

              1. Admin

                You’re so welcome! And thank you, this is a great idea for an important blog post.

  6. Depressedempath

    Thank you Admin for another monumental post! We all experienced this, like the “honeymoon ” came to an abrupt end and the psychological manipulation began. A couple of comments to the prior posters. It has not quite one year post for me, but I have NO regrets in meeting this guy and learning from my experience. He did me a favour in showing me the dark side, so that now I can recognise what is bad and appreciate the good in my life. So do not ever regret anything that happens in life, it is part of our journey and makes us stronger and able to enjoy the good things.
    I have thought a lot about my psycho and what he thinks, why he does what he does and the conclusion I come to is that this is how he developed from a child. He has learnt these techniques, not from a textbook, but from his experiences with real people in his life. He has learnt how to press people’s buttons to get what he wants. I don’t think he consciously harms others, rather he does it as an automatic response. There is no point trying to reason with him or why he does it, because he doesn’t see what he does as bad because he has no emotions or empathy to understand how we feel.
    I don’t see this happening, but I fantasise about having a conversation with him now, after all that I’ve learnt and discovered about psychopaths. I reckon I would see straight through his facade and his words would be empty, just like him.

    1. Admin

      You’re welcome! I don’t regret it either. A serious trauma is also an opportunity for growth.

  7. Asheley

    Once the manipulative shift happened in my relationship I became very nervous and concerned at his new lack of communication. In the beginning I loved talking to him so frequently by text, he’d leave sweet voice mails or send ridiculously silly picture of his meals ect. In the idealize stage he couldn’t get enough of me, he even admitted to following me home… Once that shift occurred I began to feel like I was contacting him way too often. In reality I was just continuing our normal communication pattern. Since being discarded I’ve really beat myself up for being too available or initiating communication more often than him. I’m convinced now that it was just apart of his manipulative game, it’s taken me four months to accept that most of the negativity that occurred (if not all) in our relationship was his doing. I still doubt myself all the time, I’m sure that normal for the healing process. I pray a day will come when all my doubts are gone.

    My heart goes out to all of you survivors!

    1. Admin

      Doubting yourself is normal, and it’s part of the process. It’s a lot of back and forth in your mind. You think one thing is definitely true, and then you think the opposite is true. He conditioned you to doubt your perceptions of him and his actions. He did one thing, and said another. He acted one way, and then acted another way.

      Doubt is your friend, but don’t ever doubt yourself.

  8. Andrew

    Ambivalence. A powerful tool for the control and manipulation of others.

    1. Admin

      Ambivalence! Watch for it!

  9. Paige Abrams

    I cannot thank you enough. I feel so deeply alone and unsupported in all this. I have been isolating, had to take a leave of absence from work, and am constantly in shock about what has happened and what is happening to me now. If it were not for your guidance, I would
    be attempting suicide, I am sure of it. At least now I know that it has a name, a pattern, and that I am not the only one suffering. One thing I do not get- why don’t more people know about this? Why is the reality of it so hidden if it is really very common?

    1. Adelyn Birch

      I wish I could answer your question. It seems that if people haven’t experienced it, it sounds ludicrous and completely unbelievable. Yet those same people are willing to believe Wall Street is crawling with psychopaths. Well, they date! They don’t work 24/7. It doesn’t help that psychopathy isn’t a recognized diagnosis in psychiatry. They decided it was too hard to diagnose (only the criminal justice system recognizes it). And of course psychopaths do so well staying hidden. If they’re not criminals, only those closest to them are emotionally injured. Apparently they’re pretty good at staying hidden as a group, too. They’re everywhere we are, our neighborhoods and churches and workplaces, etc., and in the gov’t, but most people are completely or almost completely unaware. I was before it happened. I knew psychopaths as serial killers and CEOs and senators, not as prospective boyfriends.

      I’m glad you’re finding support here, and I wish you would add to that by finding a therapist and a support group for abused women. Give it a try. Your chances for a full recovery go up when you get more than one kind of support. I hid from the world for a while, too. But please don’t lose your job; that’s too high of a price to pay for someone like him. Take the attitude of putting yourself first and taking care of yourself. ((HUG))

  10. What about when the slot machine starts spitting out quarters made of flesh eating poison? People keep playing even though the quarters are burning their skin. If it hurts, why does one keep playing?

    1. Adelyn Birch

      Slot machines don’t spit out quarters covered with flesh-eating poison; if they did, no one would play. I think you missed the point.

  11. Do psychopaths have weak points?

    1. Adelyn Birch

      Hi, J. Yes, they do have weak points. They become bored easily, yet they can’t tolerate boredom. They seem as prone to falling for flattery as anyone else. They can’t stand it when they’ve lost control over a person they once controlled. They can’t learn from their mistakes; they give too much weight and attention to the benefits of getting what they want, and not enough to the consequences.

  12. Tired&Broken

    Thank you for this insightful article and explanation. I think this is exactly what my spouse has been doing. He very much plays’cat and mouse’ only wanting my company when I’m otherwise occupied. I finally figured the pattern out about a year ago, and stopped being available. With five kids, that’s pretty easy, but now I’m convinced that this is what he’s done through the 36 years we’ve been together.
    He’s able to travel much for his job, so anytime the kids have issues, he disappears. Then he will deny that there were any problems, and accuse me of imagining or exaggerating the problems. Stuff like getting expelled from high school (I would never make that up! It’s quite embarrassing to me).
    So, where do I go now? Hold it together for the youngest child, still at home?

    1. Adelyn Birch

      I’m so glad you found the article insightful. What you’re saying is that your spouse has not been there for you when you’ve needed him, and he’s manipulating you. Besides (possibly) providing material support, from what I can gather he’s not emotionally available at all (and is in fact emotionally manipulative), nor is he even physically available or present to help with your children. The fact that he could “forget” (or consider it no big deal) that one of his kids was expelled from school says an awful lot about him, mainly that he doesn’t care because he has no emotional connection to his family. I’m very sorry you’ve been going through this; I know it’s very difficult to be left without support and feeling exasperated and alone. It’s good that you’re becoming aware of what’s going on in your relationship. It’s not easy, but it does give you a sound basis on which to decide how you will move forward. That decision is up to you, but I will say you have no social obligation to be neglected or abused. It might be helpful to speak with a counselor about it, but be sure to choose one who understands manipulative and abusive relationships; that’s of paramount importance. And please keep in mind that I’m responding based on just the little information you’ve given me. You are your own best source of the truth of the matter, although speaking with someone who might be able to guide you in what to do next would be a good thing. I wish you all the best xx

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