Ellie is such a good dog. I think she buried that cookie.

This got me thinking about one of my favorite areas in psychology, which is behaviorism. Why do people, or animals, do what they do, and how are actions shaped? What motivates? What reinforces behavior and what extinguishes it? In some ways, it is an incredibly simple and common sense thing -- people like things that are pleasurable and avoid things that are uncomfortable, duh. But throughout a zillion controlled conditioning studies over last hundred years or so (thank you Skinner and Pavlov, you sexy devils), it is always this ringer that I find so salient: the inconsistent reward produces the strongest behavioral response. Ooh.

Let me take the Ellie/cookie thing and very briefly explain what I mean. We have one dog, and a cookie. The dog has to be hungry and like the cookie for this to work, the underlying concept here is that the strongest motivators are what you need for survival and that you have to like something in order for it to be a reward. Fifi down the block might not like Ellie's cookie, and therefore would not be motivated to do squat for it. But Ellie really likes the cookie, and she is willing to do stuff for it; this is clearly established.

If I ask Ellie to sit, and then immediately give her the cookie every time after she completes the command, she will very reliably continue to repeat that behavior. If I tell Ellie to sit and never give her the cookie, she is less likely to even come over in the first place, much less sit, even though she would anyway because she is a good dog, but you get my point: no treat ever = screw you, lady. But if I sometimes give her the cookie for sitting and sometimes don't, this drives her dog brain WILD with POTENTIAL and POSSIBILITY and increases and sharpens her response. Even getting the cookie every time tops out -- at some point, she becomes full, the cookie is no longer a need, and she gets bored with so much pleasure. It's too easy. When she is unsure if she will receive the cookie or not, her need is psychologically heightened and she scrambles to figure out how to make the sometimes-cookie happen. Is is the quality of my sit? Do I need to look more humble? Should I not lick my lips or drool? What if there's a cookie famine and this is the last one ever, AAAAAAA! COOKIE!

The inconsistent reward is evil, and highly effective. It convinces the subject that the item of need is even more scarce than originally thought, and therefore even more desirable and worth putting in extra effort for. Now let us apply this concept past dogs and cookies, to humans and relationships and the case of Myron and Helga. Myron is interested in dating Helga, for the obvious reason: Helga has lady parts that appeal to him. Here are the outcomes of the three reward scenarios:

1. Consistent Reward: Myron asks Helga out on a date, Helga says yes. Myron asks Helga out several more times over a few months, and she agrees every time and also offers some lady part usage to Myron. Myron is eventually sated, figures out that Helga talks too much, sees a woman named Crystal with bigger boobs, and tapers off dating Helga. He subconsciously has filled his manly need to chase and conquer, and also figures any women who so easily gives it up to him is not all that hot anyway. Helga tells her girlfriends that Myron is a jerk.

2. No Reward: Myron asks Helga out on a date, and she says she is really terribly busy. He asks a few more times, and she says she is super extra amazingly busy, is seeing someone else, doesn't really like him in that way, and finally just says NO. Myron asks two more times, then never asks her out again, figuring she must be a lesbian or frigid, saving his battered ego from further torment.

3. Inconsistent Reward: Myron asks Helga out; she says ooh, I am really over-scheduled this week, maybe next week. Myron asks next week, Helga says, ooh, can't do it, my cousin's in town, maybe next week. Myron asks the next week, and Helga agrees to meet him for 15 minutes for coffee. Myron texts her immediately for another date as Helga leaves the coffee shop; Helga texts back that she will have to check her schedule, but she just luuvvvved their talk. Myron waits three days with no response and then leaves Helga a message that he wants to take her to a very fine dining establishment. Helga says she's feeling conflicted about dating at this time in her life, but that she finds him very appealing. Myron begins to drool, because Helga has now become the most-attractive woman in the universe. Helga accepts the expensive dinner date a month later. Myron texts her for another date when she goes to the bathroom. She texts back that she is committed to pooping right now, and isn't sure about anything else. Dates and denials of dates continue until Myron is so frenzied with desire and the need to win that he makes an offer of marriage. Depending on her agenda, Helga accepts and continues yanking Myron's chain for life, or declines, and she begins dating Crystal Big Boobs.

The inconsistent reward is essentially the idea of hard-to-get; that the thing that you need or want is sometimes there and sometimes isn't, so you'd better make sure you are on your toes when the opportunity presents itself, making you hungry. And oddly enough, the brain prefers this to even bloated predictable comfort. Living things have a need to strive, to hoard, to out-do, to win. Notice how the inconsistent reward plays out (let's not even get into gambling here) in many situations. Ooh.

As for Ellie, sometimes she gets a cookie for her sit and sometimes just some hearty praise and a pat on the head. That's why she loves me so.