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Bullshit and Intermittent Rewards

A while back in the early days of this blog, I wrote a post about a concept called intermittent rewards, also known as random reinforcement. Here’s an excerpt from the post:

The simplest definition I can come up with for intermittent rewards would be “unpredictable random rewards in response to repeated behavior.” A perfect illustration would be gambling in general, and slot machines in particular. With a slot machine, you do the same behavior over and over again, put in a token and pull a lever, but you never know when you’ll actually be rewarded for this behavior. This creates an incentive to keep repeating the behavior, because you are chasing the reward, and you become convinced that if you just do it one more time, that may be the time you get the reward. All gambling works like this to a degree, which is what makes it such a compulsive addiction. Intermittent rewards also are used in dog training. B.F. Skinner is credited with pioneering the intermittent reward theory by his experiments with the operant conditioning chamber, better knowns as a Skinner Box…

This NY Times article [4] discusses intermittent rewards and describes their power well:

The makers of slot machines may rely on the lure of life-changing jackpots to attract customers, but the machines’ ability to hook so deeply into a player’s cerebral cortex derives from one of the more powerful human feedback mechanisms, a phenomenon behavioral scientists call infrequent random reinforcement, or ”intermittent reward.” Children whose parents consistently shower them with love and attention tend to take that devotion for granted. Those who know they’ll never be rewarded by their parents stop trying after a while. But those who are rewarded only intermittently — in the fashion of a slot machine — will often pursue positive outcomes with a persistent tenacity. ”That hard-wiring that nature gave us didn’t anticipate electronic gaming devices,” says Howard Shaffer, director of the division on addictions at Harvard Medical School and perhaps the country’s foremost authority on gambling disorders.

”The slot machine is brilliantly designed from a behavioral psychology perspective,” says Nancy Petry, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. ”The people who are making these machines are using all the behavioral techniques to increase the probability that the behavior of gambling will reoccur.” She refers to intermittent reward and ”second-order conditioning” — the lights and sounds that go off when a player wins, for example, or the two cherries in a row that convinces people they’re getting closer.

”No other form of gambling manipulates the human mind as beautifully as these machines,” concludes Petry, who has studied gambling treatments since 1998. ”I think that’s why that’s the most popular form of gambling with which people get into trouble.”

Anti-gambling activists refer to slots as ”the crack cocaine of gambling.” Though gambling’s loudest critics tend to be alarmists, the crack analogy may be apt. Just as crack addicts have frequently seemed to self-destruct much faster than those abusing powdered cocaine, there is abundant, albeit still largely anecdotal, evidence suggesting that the same is true of today’s computer-driven slot machines — video-based slots especially. Where social workers once found that the woes of a typical problem gambler tended to mount gradually — with a period of 20 or more years commonly passing between a first wager and a bottoming-out event like bankruptcy, divorce or even suicide — addiction cycles of a few years are, if not typical, commonplace among slots players.

Look back at your own life and think of the people you’ve known that you’ve been obsessed with pleasing, be it a parent, a boss or a lover. Chances are, you were an unwitting victim of intermittent rewards. The parent that one day is happy that you bring home an A, then another time they seem unimpressed with the same grade? Intemittent rewards. The boss that praises you for a job well done one day, then is unimpressed by the same behavior the next? Intermittent rewards. The lover whose response you can never predict? Intermittent rewards. Lottery scratch tickets? You get the picture. Anything where you repeat the same behavior over and over but don’t know what results to expect falls under this category. The intermittent reward system evokes a deep seated response in humans – to compete, to try to do better next time, to find a solution or a pattern to a seemingly unsolvable ‘puzzle’. We are driven to look for patterns in things and to try to solve unsolvable problems.

What’s really insiduous about the intermittent rewards method is the number of ways it can be disguised. The dog training and parenting examples are really obvious, but there are tons of examples of intermittent rewards in your life that you probably don’t recognize as such. For example, look at things like social networking sites and email accounts. You can log on to your email, Myspace or Facebook account over and over again and get a different result each time. A message from a cute stranger. A long lost friend reaching out to you. No new activity at all. A flood of good emails. A bunch of useless forwards. You pretty much don’t know what to expect each time you log on, which makes you check them compulsively. If you’re macking on myspace and sending messages to a bunch of hot chicks each day, you have no idea what results those efforts will yield day to day, so it becomes a compulsion. This article [5] for example even makes a case of Twitter as an example of intermittent rewards. Even blogging has an intermittent reward element that makes it addictive. One day you can blog and have just a few hits and no links and comments. Another day you can blog and be linked by a huge website and get a ton of traffic and comments. Then the next day you do a blog post and you’re back to your usual traffic. The intermittent rewards motivate you to keep chasing.

Yesterday, I discussed the concepts of bullshit, half-truths, and lying in the service of bullshit, and compared them to lying. In that post, I mentioned how bullshit is about saying whatever you have to say regardless of whether it’s true or false in order to push a certain agenda, which is to come across as if he is worth listening to. The bullshitter himself usually isn’t sure if what he’s saying is true or if it’s false, and he often doesn’t even care. All the bullshitter cares about is that the bullshit is plausible and that it helps his agenda of appearing knowledgeable and trustworthy. Bullshit isn’t an intentional lie, because to intentionally lie one has to first endeavor to know and understand the truth, then endeavor to state the opposite of the truth. To the bullshitter, he just wants to sell a flattering image of himself at any cost, so the truth of a statement is not as relevant as whether or not the statement is believable and helps his image. A half-truth, also known as lying by omission, is a statement that is technically truth but is intended to mislead the listener. Lying in the service of bullshit is when someone does know a specific statement is the opposite of truth, so in that limited instance the bullshitter actually knows true from false, but because the lie is being used to support a bullshit premise, the distinction between true and false ends up getting lost in the long run anyway, just as it does with regular bullshit. It’s a little much to convey in a single paragraph, so I suggest reading the original post to grasp it better.

As Harry Frankfurt says in his book On Bullshit:

Both in lying and in telling the truth people are guided by their beliefs concerning the way things are. These guide them as they endeavor either to describe the world correctly or to describe it deceitfully. For this reason, telling lies does not tend to unfit a person for telling the truth in the same way that bullshitting tends to. Through excessive indulgence in the latter activity, which involves making assertions without paying attention to anything except what it suits one to say, a person’s normal habit of attending to the ways things are may become attenuated or lost. Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

Bullshit, half-truths, and lies in the service of bullshit are very much like intermittent rewards. If someone tells you the truth all the time, they become predictable. You know what to expect and take it for granted. If someone just lies to you all the time, you can actually adjust to that as well. For example, growing up I had two friends, neither of whom knew each other. One was a college friend we nicknamed “The Lyin’ King,” because he was a compulsive liar. He would just lie about the most insane things, and it wasn’t just the frequency of the lies that was notable but the scope. Once we got used to his consistent lying it became almost an endearing quality. You know how far you could trust him, he would get busted often, we began to adjust our expectations accordingly, and because he became so well-known for lying his reputation prevented him from ever really doing much harm with it. He would even laugh whenever caught in another fib. Another friend I had later in life was similar, and he was nicknamed “Pack O’Lies.” Both guys were surprisingly loyal friends, and although you couldn’t trust their stories, in a strange way you could trust them. One of them is still my friend to this day (the other I fell out of touch with, but never had any bad blood with). Also, they were strangely honest about being liars. If you busted them, they would laugh, and after a while they even embraced their nicknames. By telling the truth about lying, whenever you dealt with them you still could follow what was true and what wasn’t. They never bullshitted.

Now bullshit is different, because it’s inconsistent. If am bullshitting, I just say whatever sounds plausible to advance whatever agenda I’m pursuing. By just sheer probability, sometimes I am going to strike upon a true statement and sometimes I am going to strike upon a false statement, and most of the time a listener won’t know when my statement is true and when it isn’t. Not only that, I, the bullshitter, won’t know. This is like intermittent rewards because the truth is a crapshoot, it becomes like figuring out a puzzle or a pattern. Getting the truth is like hitting the jackpot in a slot machine. Lies in the service of bullshit are basically bullshit in disguise, so they also operate like intermittent rewards. With half-truths, even true statements become like intermittent rewards, because one time a true statement may tell the whole story and another time a true statement might be actually a lie by omission, so you have to analyze, pick apart and decipher patterns and giveaways.

This is one major reason (among others of course) why I think codependents find relationships with narcissists and other Cluster B vampires to be so addictive. Communications with them carry many of the cognitive traps that other forms of addiction have, like intermittent rewards. I used to love reading books and watching movies about con artists, especially real life ones, and one of the best con tactics I read is to incorporate as much truth into the con as possible rather than just creating a lie from top to bottom, because it made it harder for the victim to set the facts straight and made the victim not trust his own instincts and senses.

Even after the relationship with a narcissist is over, the intermittent reward effect will still often work its magic on the victim, as the victim reminisces on the relationship remembering things that seemed like outright lies yet balancing them with things that were true or at least were never disproven: “Did she love me or didn’t she?” “She did tell me about this and that was true, wasn’t it? So she couldn’t have been all bad if she could be honest and vulnerable about that.” ” She made this gesture and did this for me, and she totally didn’t have to. Was that real or wasn’t it?” “What about that time she confessed x,y, and z to me and we have that heart-to-heart?”

Just like liars are better than bullshitters when it comes to their relationship to the truth, someone who just does wall-to-wall lying in the relationship is in some ways better than someone who populates the relationship with mixed messages, bullshit, half-truths, and lies in the service of bullshit. With a total liar, it hurts but it’s easier to just throw out everything that person said, take your lumps, and eventually move on. Your chances for closure are better. No need to replay every moment, just tell yourself that all of them were lies. With the bullshitting narcissist, you feel the temptation to examine every moment and try to categorize it. Was this moment true? Okay, this was probably a lie, but what about this? Okay, I looked into this statement and it turned out to be true, but was it a half-truth and she left something out? The “payoff” in this type of mindset is the hope that in the next moment you choose to relive and examine, you can determine “Oh, okay, so this part seems it was probably genuine. This part wasn’t a lie. She did at least love me in that instant.” It’s a way to salvage what good feelings you can from a past relationship, by proving to yourself it wasn’t all bad. This addictive process of revisiting and reinterpreting your memories with the crazymaker in order to find occasional payoffs that prove it wasn’t all bad or it was at least partly genuine is an intermittent reward system that is created by bullshit.

Next time we’ll discuss the related concepts of truthseekers versus advocates, and the dangers that come from mistaking one for the other.

4 Responses to “Bullshit and Intermittent Rewards”


  1. Where does bullshit fall in regard to an entire society. For instance the often coined term ” fake it till you make it” is popular at the very least in America. Can cultures, societies, traditions, religions, and holidays contain bullshit that the public willfully accepts?


  2. Fake it til you make it is indeed a form of bullshitting.


  3. Could you please inform me the author’s name of this article. I would like to read more from him, or perhaps quote him, with his permission


  4. I find this article very insightful. However, I am frustrated at the lack of authorship