Rats, Levers, Bad Couples, And the Cost-Benefit Analysis

Over at Every Topic in the Universe(s?), the blogger for whom I have no other name than either “omniverse” (or “impressed”, the name under which she last posted) raised the following question:

If they give a rat a lever it can push to get a food pellet, it’ll push whenever it wants a food pellet. If they give a rat a lever it can push that will SOMETIMES give it a food pellet, it will push the lever CONSTANTLY, will become virtually obsessed with pushing it.


It’s counter-intuitive, isn’t it?

To me, not really. It makes a lot of sense, after all. The rat doesn’t have to risk anything, doesn’t have to fight, doesn’t expect any negative response to the condition. Either nothing happens, or sometimes food comes. I’d be pushing the lever too, maybe not obsessively but habitually, at mealtime, if it were handy, just in case.

As for whether humans hanging out with people who hurt them continually is similar to this, I imagine a more similar experiment would be for a lever that is conductive, some kind of metal for example. The rat pushes the lever and either food comes out (occasionally) or the rat gets an electrical shock (usually), or both (very occasionally).

In this case, I think the rat’s pushing of the lever would be inversely correlated with the pain of the shock. If it’s a mild shock, the rat might go for it to get the food, since the ill they risk doesn’t outweigh the good. If it’s a big shock, they’d be less inclined to try. And if it’s a near-fatal (or just terribly painful) shock, I think most rats would not try again, even if the bad shock were accompanied by food.

And so it is with people, to a point. See, there are “needs” that we all have, and some of those are complicated, dark, and unseemly things. Hell, I don’t even need to talk about other people to show this: there was a time in my life when I had a bit of a saviour complex and the utter crap I put up with in the name of compassion and helping someone close to me was so extensive that I needed years alone thinking and ruminating (and leaning on close friends) to work my way out of the emotional and psychological damage I let myself incur in the process.

People do stay with people who treat them badly, but in every case, I am willing to say, they get something out of that relationship which to them, in some way that seems twisted to the rest of us, far outweighs whatever bad things they put up with publicly. Otherwise, they would just leave.

For some people, it’s security: the safety of a status quo, an official relationship with someone. The meaningfulness of “being someone else’s” which they value even over being their own selves.

For some, it’s attention: any attention is, as they say, good attention. Some people I know gravitate to bad relationships because they’re intense, highly focused, and because they find themselves at the center of those kinds of relationships.

Some people have a need to be parented, and they gravitate to bossy, pushy, controlling partners. Some people have a need to parent someone else, and they gravitate towards passive, unengaged partners and relationships which they can control.

And still others have stranger, more incomprehensible needs: the need to help or save other people. The need to be punished for some offense of action or nature long-forgotten by others, or long hidden from the world. Some feel a need to be abused, something which often follows a childhood of being treated the same way. Some people even have a need to be a total mess, because they want their lives to be as meaningful and dramatic as a movie or TV-show and they have no sense of how to achieve that except to have a life of maltreatment, bad relationships, and histrionics.

And if you think I’m only talking about women, you’re wrong. I know a fair number of men in these kinds of situations, too. I think it’s fair to say we’re more complicated than rats, but that the dynamics are pretty easily comprehensible.

Of course, not all relationships are like this. I’d like to think that in the healthy ones, there is a fair balance of consideration of how people treat one another based on respect, on true needs, on the health of each person and the relationship as a whole, and on what each person values and experiences in his or her life.

But as for the bad couples, they’re not so incomprehensible. If the person who is complaining about something hasn’t left, they’re probably getting something out of the arrangement which, however unhealthy it might be, they (probably unconsciously) desperately want and feel they even need.

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