What Slot Machines and Rats Can Teach Us About Toxic Relationships

There doesn’t seem to be much difference between a rat obsessing over a food pellet and a person addicted to earning breadcrumbs...

Written by Amy C · 3 min read >
What Slot Machines and Rats Can Teach Us About Toxic Relationships - Heart Hackers Club - toxic relationships - Shower

Do you know why slot machines are so addictive? Because they’re designed to be unpredictable. There is no consistency or predictability when you’ll hear the cha-ching sound. The win (regardless of size) is a huge reward for your brain as it gives you a surge of the feel good chemical, dopamine. When you’re anticipating the reward, and cannot predict when you’ll get it, your dopamine receptors keep getting surprised. Instead of being bored by the haphazard payouts, you get obsessed, investing more and more in hopes for that elusive win.

You may be wondering why the hell I’m talking about slot machines. Because the same psychological mechanism is at play whether someone is pulling the lever or grasping for love in a hot/cold relationship. There’s something called intermittent reinforcement which keep us addicted.

Loves Me, Loves Me Not…

When you’re dating someone who calls you back sometimes, is interested a little but never enough, or suddenly love bombs you after weeks of not returning your texts— your brain can get addicted. This can result in you obsessing, ruminating, and trying harder to earn their attention. You react this way not because the person is so AMAZING. No, it’s a result of your brain getting hooked to the inconsistent and occasional hits of dopamine.

When the apple of your eye takes you on a romantic weekend and then disappears for a week, you go from a dopamine high to withdrawal. You feel depressed, anxious, numb, and confused. You obsess over your beloved, replaying the scenes of your weekend, analyzing each detail, wondering what you did wrong. When your beloved doesn’t return your call, you resort to stalking their social media to get your fix. You’re feeling all the feels until DING, out of the blue you get a text:


Who would have thought three letters and an exclamation mark was all you needed to be okay. You go from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs. The intensity exhilarates you. You equate the intensity and chaos with love. But this is not love at all. This is intermittent reinforcement in full force and it’s keeping you addicted to a toxic cycle.

To drive this point home, let’s look at some good ol’ rat research.

Food Pellet = Breadcrumb

Researchers designed an experiment where a rat would get a pellet of food each time it pressed a lever. Next, they removed the food and when the rat pressed the lever no pellets would come out. The rat eventually realizes pressing the lever will not provide any food, and so it gets preoccupied with something else. Both these experiments have the same pattern of continuous reinforcement — there’s a predictable pattern in terms of what’s expected. In both experiments the pattern is “I do X and expect X to happen”.

But then the researchers wanted to see what would happen if they made the reward unpredictable. They conducted another experiment where the rat would sometimes get a pellet of food, and sometimes it wouldn’t. This is where things got interesting. The rat became anxiously obsessed with the lever. It became so obsessed with pressing the lever that it stopped everything else and began to deteriorate. The rat was engaged in a pattern of intermittent reinforcement which caused the rat to become obsessed with trying to get the reward.

There doesn’t seem to be much difference between a rat obsessing over a food pellet and a person addicted to earning breadcrumbs from their beloved. It appears that a slot machine player, a rat and someone in a hot/cold relationship have a lot in common. They are all susceptible to the effects of intermittent reinforcement which keeps them hooked.

The situation gets worse if the relationship is an abusive one. When someone is rewarded with attention, gifts, and love intermittently throughout the abuse cycle, they still releasing oxytocin (the bonding chemical). This is one of the reasons why it’s so difficult for someone to detach from their narcissistic or abusive partners.

Get out of the cycle

If this resonates with you, the first step is to recognize if intermittent reinforcement is keeping you obsessive or addicted to someone who isn’t healthy for you. If someone isn’t equally invested in you, is stringing you along, is hot/cold — these are indicators the person is not heathy for you. If you can’t seem to help but obsess over someone who doesn’t that into you, this might be a good time to dig into your standards and why you’re setting them so low.

Do not be the rat obsessively pressing the lever in hopes a food pellet will eventually come out. When someone is not responsive, giving your breadcrumbs of affection, do not press harder on the gas pedal and give/work/do more. That’s your signal to pause, reassess and walk away if you have to.

When someone is invested in building a connection with you, you won’t be confused about it. Someone who loves you won’t leave you guessing all the time.

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Written by Amy C
Amy Chan is the Founder of Renew Breakup Bootcamp, a retreat that takes a scientific and spiritual approach to healing the heart. Marie Claire calls her "A relationship expert whose work is like that of a scientific Carrie Bradshaw" and her company has been featured across national media including Good Morning America, Vogue, Glamour, Nightline along with the front page of The New York Times. Her book, Breakup Bootcamp - The Science of Rewiring Your Heart, published by Harper Collins, will be released Fall 2020. Profile

One Reply to “What Slot Machines and Rats Can Teach Us About Toxic Relationships”

  1. The level of toxicity is proportional to your own need for validation.
    But the reality is that you cannot be the center of someone else’s universe, nor should you want to be the center of someone else’s.

    First lack of attention will send you in a downward spiral, making someone else indirectly responsible for your self-created misery.
    Relationship happiness (and just happiness in general) is an inside job.

    It only takes one missed text or being preoccupied with other things for someone who is riddled with anxiety, deeply insecure, or other psychological issues, to start making things up in their weird little minds.

    Life or relationships aren’t perfectly Utopian.
    Grow up and learn to deal with the ups and downs.
    And get professional help with your mental issues.

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