So You’re Addicted To Commitment Phobes or: How Gambling & Dating Are Annoyingly Related

Have you ever read research on what causes gambling addictions? No, only me? Alright, let me break this down for you with the help of a Boston Globe article:

“Games of chance prey on this neural system. Consider, for example, the slot machine. You put in a coin and pull the lever. The reels start to whirr. Eventually, the machine settles on its verdict. Chances are you lost money. But think about the slot machine from the perspective of your dopamine neurons. Whenever you win some money, the reward activates those brain cells intent on anticipating future rewards. These neurons want to predict the patterns inside the machine, to decode the logic of luck.”

So now you’re thinking, what’s this got to do with dating?

Well if you’re still reading this, I’m sure you’ve dated some (or a lot of) people that dole out attention & affection in random arbitrary ways. While frustrating, you find yourself trying to “decode” or understand them, i.e. you text at 3PM every Tuesday because one time they responded right away!

“Yet here’s the catch: slot machines can’t be solved. They use random number generators to determine their payout. There are no patterns to decipher. There is only a little microchip, churning out arbitrary digits.”

While I’m not saying the people you choose to date are completely random, their response most likely has nothing to do with you, the time of day or any other predicted mode of behavior (unless they’re purposely playing games like only respond to every third text message).

At this point, our dopamine neurons should just turn themselves off: the slot machine is a waste of mental energy. But this isn’t what happens. Instead of getting bored by the haphazard payouts, our dopamine neurons become obsessed. The random rewards of gambling are much more seductive than a more predictable reward cycle. When we pull the lever and win some money, we experience a potent rush of pleasurable dopamine precisely because the reward was so unexpected… The end result is that we are transfixed by the slot machine, riveted by the fickle nature of its payouts.

So now you’re hooked. There’s something in the “mystery” of this person. Instead of getting bored and walking away you crave another “win.”

“The trick of a one-armed bandit… is that it provides us with the illusion of a pattern. We get enough rewards so that we keep on playing. Our cells think they’ll figure out the pattern soon. But of course they won’t.”

So you keep trying thinking you’ll say the right thing, at the right time, in the right way and maybe this time they won’t cancel the date or won’t run out of bed the next morning. This person may not want to be with you or with anyone else for that matter. Chances are they have made that painfully obvious, but you still choose to let it ride being fully aware that the house always wins. 

The irony of gambling is that it’s entertaining because it’s so frustrating, at least for our dopamine neurons. One of the big remaining questions for scientists is why only some gamblers get addicted. While most people can walk away from the slot machines, some gamblers… can’t resist the temptation. For these compulsive gamblers, the misplaced predictions of their dopamine neurons become self-destructive. These people are so blinded by the pleasures of occasionally winning that they slowly lose everything.

I’m not blaming the “gambler” in this situation as it can be a real challenge to break this pattern. Some people know when to give up while others are willing to lose their self-respect, their dignity and grow resentful of future partners because of this bad experience.

Unfortunately, as I often fall victim to this, I have yet to discover a solution just simply identified a connections that I’d love to continue to explore. If you have any insight, please share. If not, ponder the question: can you be addicted to a person?


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