I played my very last slot machine on December 28, 2000 in Virginia City, Nevada. Having visited the Mark Twain Museum, Boot Hill Cemetery, and the Bucket of Blood Saloon, I was caught up in the spirit of the Old West, and started feeding quarters one at a time into an ancient machine. After donating $20 without winning back a single quarter, I abandoned slots forever. I experienced what B.F. Skinner termed extinction, which is the loss of motivation to repeat a behavior when it yields no results.
A good slot machine programmer takes advantage of intermittent reinforcement—occasional, randomly timed payoffs—to suck more money out of gamblers. Rather than taking all my money straight away, the programmer of my last machine could have kept me playing longer, and taken even more of my cash, if s/he had rewarded me with a quarter here and there. Unpredictable payoffs keep hope alive, even when small and delivered at lengthy intervals. A session of eighty plays without any returns was obviously too long an interval to maintain my hope of winning.
Relationships need payoffs, too
Relationships always involve an investment of time and energy. When people invest in relationships, they may not be thinking as deliberately as the person feeding quarters into a slot machine, but they are definitely hoping for a return on the investment, typically in the form of emotional benefits. So what happens when you work hard to cultivate a relationship, but the quality produced falls far below expectations? You guessed it: you suffer disappointment, lose motivation, and eventually experience extinction.
You must break even
Everyone who enters a relationship has to decide how much time and energy they are willing to invest. With frequent rewards and the potential for high quality, it makes sense to work harder on the relationship and have more patience with progress and results. However, over time, you must break even. You can’t keep “pumping quarters” into a relationship without hitting an occasional jackpot to off-set losses. Furthermore, experiencing frustration, conflict, or disappointment in a relationship compounds the feeling of “losing.” Frequent losses, combined with lack of quality, make it difficult to maintain the feeling that the benefits of a relationship are worth the efforts. If such conditions persist, and you are not breaking even, then you are bound to lose motivation, and you will not be able to sustain those efforts.
Beware of the rare jackpot
When relationship-building efforts yield no returns, people predictably lose interest and quit. However, just like with slot machines, people who get diminishing returns on their relationship investment often remain in the game if they hit an occasional jackpot. That’s the danger of intermittent reinforcement—it keeps hope alive for a winning experience, even when the net losses are significant and there is clearly no chance of breaking even.
In retrospect, I’m grateful that slot in Virginia City gave me no love, because it helped me to see that activity as a losing proposition and to leave the game permanently. If you are investing heavily in a relationship with minimal returns, but hit a jackpot now and then, ask yourself this: Are those rare winnings sufficient to meet my needs, or are they really just moments of euphoria followed by long periods of losing?