Intermittent reinforcement is when a person gets inconsistent rewards for engaging in a certain behavior. This is often discussed in the context of abusive or toxic relationships where there is a lot of back and forth. People can feel “addicted” to a person who is unpredictable or abusive; they get a rush of dopamine when things are good and keep chasing that “high.”
This is mirrored in other addictive behaviors. The most direct example is gambling, which relies on intermittent reinforcement to hook people. You might lose many times in a row, but that one big win keeps you coming back.
Addiction in the Brain
When it comes to substance use disorders, the brain is primed to expect drugs or alcohol. Using addictive substances floods the brain with dopamine, a neurotransmitter that motivates you to repeat an activity. When you’ve chronically used these substances, your brain seeks balance by reducing dopamine receptors and the reward system’s sensitivity.
This means that it’s difficult to feel pleasure from anything but drugs or alcohol—but even they tend to stop feeling pleasurable. At that point in addiction, you’re drinking or using because you need substances in order to feel okay. Addiction also imprints a powerful memory of pleasure onto drug or alcohol use.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Whenever the reward circuit is activated by a healthy, pleasurable experience, a burst of dopamine signals that something important is happening that needs to be remembered….Just as drugs produce intense euphoria, they also produce much larger surges of dopamine…Large surges of dopamine ‘teach’ the brain to seek drugs at the expense of other, healthier goals and activities.”
Intermittent Reinforcement Keeps You Hooked
In some ways, this can be seen as its own form of intermittent reinforcement. You are chasing a high, even though you’ve likely developed a tolerance to the drug and need more and more to feel anything.
People often use alcohol or drugs to detach from emotional pain. This may work for a short time, but eventually the pain comes back stronger. This also reinforces substance use; the person relies on those short moments of relief, while the emotional discomfort grows and the need to numb it gets more intense.
Breaking the cycle of intermittent reinforcement is similar whether it’s an abusive relationship or a substance use disorder. The first step is getting away from either the person or the substance and seeking support. You won’t be stuck in a toxic relationship or an addictive cycle forever; you will find rewards from other things that are better for your physical, emotional, and mental health.
If you are struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder, there is help and hope. Amatus Recovery Centers offers high-quality treatment for mental health disorders and addiction in facilities across the country. Our staff—many of whom are in recovery themselves—will help you break the cycle of addiction and build a great life in recovery. Call an admissions specialist at 410-593-0005.