The Reinforcement-Affect Theory . . . (the old model first)
“If she were my girl, I would treat her like a queen.”
“The way positive reinforcement is carried out is more important than the amount.”
– B.F. Skinner “
We generally like those we associate with enjoyable interaction. When people are allowed to “do their thing,” the enjoyment is attributed to those with whom we are interacting. In short, it’s enjoyable to be around compatable people. According to proponents of this theory, people also tend to like those who reward them.
On the other hand, people normally don’t like to be around persons who are cranky, whiny, bossy, rude, or acting in any manner we find unpleasant. In conventional thinking, normally unpleasant behavior is not very rewarding (or in academic jargon, reinforcing).
How do we explain attraction when it’s to persons who, “Say bad things, and do bad things”?
Proponents of the Reinforcement-Affect Theory advise people wanting others to like them to act in a reinforcing manner: that is, treat them “nice.” A professor of communications suggests that “If you want to be liked, then act reinforcing; “Say nice things, do nice things.” On the surface, that appears to be sound, logical advice. Yet, then how do we explain attraction when it’s to persons who, “Say bad things, and do bad things?”
This type of attraction to “not-nice” behavior has presented philosophers, historians, psychologists and other authors of the subject with a challenge when conceptualizing attraction and its causes. For instance, Freud (1912) stated that:
“Some obstacle is necessary to swell the tide of libido to its height; and all periods of history whenever natural barriers in the way of satisfaction have not sufficed, mankind has erected conventional ones in order to enjoy love.”
Others too, have also sensed this seemingly “backwards” effect. In her discussion of passionate love, Elaine Walster,* a more contemporary writer, puts it succinctly, “. . . passionate love flourishes in settings which would seem to thwart its development has always been puzzling to social scientists.” This seemingly “backwards” aspect of attraction does make sense however, when examined using the logic provided by Simmel. Since “not-nice” behavior is the cause of attraction in potentially half of all relationships, it needs more serious consideration.
I’m convinced that the Reinforcement-Affect Theory is an example of how elements of our pop culture have influenced our supposedly scientific research. Think about it, what academic author would dare publish anything that suggested not-nice behaviors caused attraction? These days it just isn’t politically correct and would be very risky. I’m explicitly making such an assertion. Some people are attracted to jerks– period. And since social action exists on both sides of a continuum, my guess is that both types of behaviors are potentially attractive. It pains me to say it, and believe me; I wish it wasn’t the case, but sometimes people are attracted to, and stay attracted to, jerks. But this is the beauty of Simmel’s logic; it explains attraction to both the nice guy as well as the jerk.
Simmel’s logic challenges the one-dimensional logic of the Reinforcement-Affect Theory. Although it’s politically incorrect to discuss this type of seemingly unpleasant behavior, it must be acknowledged and incorporated into any model purporting to explain attraction.
Perhaps maltreatment is somehow perceived as a reward to some people. Some may like a challenge; the challenge to change someone from bad to good (their thinking goes something like this, “Others may not be able to change them, but they will surely change for ME.”). After all, there are plenty of people who are attracted to jerks. Most of you can think of someone you know who is attracted to a jerk. It may have even been you at one time or another.
*1971 Walster, Elaine. “Passionate Love.” In Bernard I. Murstein (editor) Theories of Attraction and Love. New York: Springer Publishing Company., Inc.
Critique of the Reinforcement-Affect Theory
Potential Attractiveness Traits
The preceding discussion casts some doubt on one of the leading theories of relationships. As I said above, the Reinforcement- Affect Theory states that in order to be seen or perceived as attractive to someone else, one should “Say nice things; do nice things.” Many people believe in this type of logic when they say things like, “If she were my girl, I would treat her like a queen.” To many males, for example, being a gentleman means just that, being a male who is gentle. Despite the seemingly sound logic behind treating someone “nice” in order to attract them, the most valuable persons are the ones who are “hard to get,” but not “impossible to get”; yet not necessarily the “nice guy.” At least not the “completely” nice guy. You have to have a backbone!
LET ME BE CLEAR HERE: I’m not saying that anyone should be abusive toward anyone else. Nor am I stating that I agree with abusive behavior. But then again I don’t control the social forces inherent with social life. People are sometimes attracted to jerks, and that being said, we need to keep that possibility in mind if we are to have a clear understanding of what makes people become attracted to one another. After all, it’s potentially half the cases.
Real Thugs Don’t Have Manners
My roommate and her friend always took me “places” with them. We would do things together like go see movies, shop at the mall, and attend sporting events. One thing that never changed about those two women: they talked about boys incessantly. Both of these women were from the Tucson Hispanic ghetto, and were both admittedly attracted to thug-types. Every time we were out somewhere, and I would spot a guy dressed in a white wife-beater and Dickies brand pants, I would razz them about trying to flirt with the guy. They normally took my teasing in stride and even found a way to rib me in return. During this one incident, however, I was completely surprised by their response to my teasing.
The incident occurred immediately after the Arizona Diamondbacks played, and won, the dramatic seventh game of the 2001 World Series. Since the game was played in Phoenix, we were able to watch the city celebrate the incredible victory of a well-played, back-and-forth battle of two talented teams. After the Diamondback’s victory, the city was alive with energy!
Immediately after the game, those two called me and told me to get ready to go downtown. We’d soon be on our way to celebrate this important victory. A World Series victory isn’t an everyday event. Thus, as a sociologist, I was anxious to observe what happened during a celebration of this magnitude. The lesson I would soon learn wasn’t what I had expected.
Soon enough we were downtown enjoying the festivities. The public sidewalks were jam-packed with revelers. People walking in the area had to squeeze their way through the mass of bodies: it was that crowded. As we were slowly making our way toward the main celebration, a young man who was in a hurry came up from behind us. He pushed through between my two friends. He used his hands to separate the two women as he stepped through them and said, “Excuse me.”
As he went ahead of us, I could see that he was Hispanic, and was clad in what I thought were stereotypical thug clothes. He had a closely cropped head and tattoos. I immediately said to myself, “Thug!” and what came out of my mouth was, “Hey girls, there’s a thug for you!”
Before I was even finished commenting, both women turned to look in my direction and said rather matter-of-factly, “He’s not a thug!” I immediately thought to myself, “Huh? Really? Why not?” I must have had a perplexed look on my face because in unison, my two friends remarked further, “Real thugs don’t have manners!”
I had always believed in the adage: if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck; it must be a duck. Now what could I possibly say? I guess you learn something new every day. And that day I learned not to judge a thug-looking person by his appearance. As it turned out, my two friends had absolutely no attraction to that guy. To them he wasn’t an authentic thug: he had manners! In their eyes this man was obviously no challenge. To them, a man with manners was a tamed man. Not only was I stunned by their response, but saddened as well.