neuroscience is not why you date assholes

I came across an interesting take on the Nice Guy Problem here. Shahida Arabi explains it all in neurochemical terms. First is dopamine.

Positive experiences like unforgettable dates, over-the-top attention, flattery, amazing sex, gifts, and grand romantic gestures can all release dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that controls the pleasure center of our brains which creates reward circuits, which then generates automatic associations in our brain that link our romantic partners with pleasure and even our survival.

The catch? Dopamine flows more readily in the brain when there is a “intermittent reinforcement” schedule of rewards rather than a consistent schedule. The inability of a toxic partner to give us what we need leaves us pining for the good times and continuing to invest in the relationship, much like a gambler at a slot machine who hopes for a perceived gain despite the inevitable losses of such a risky investment…

Emotionally unavailable men or otherwise toxic partners are masters of intermittent reinforcement; they do things on their own schedule – literally. They may disappear for days, they may have a plethora of side chicks, they may constantly woo you and also withhold from you that coveted relationship status. They’re always on the precipice of commitment or changing for the better before they press the reset button once again. They are always uncertain (or too certain when they’re sweet-talking you into bed) about the future, and they leave you guessing about their true intentions on a daily basis.

Our brains don’t have anything that looks like a “pleasure center.” Lazy people use it to mean nucleus accumbnes or something. If you follow the link, you’ll see that it’s much more complicated than that. In fact, a guy named Palmiter genetically engineered “dopamine-deficient” mice (tyrosine hydroxylase knocked out in dopamine cells, so you could restore dopamine with l-DOPA). They still preferred sweetened water to plain water.

Dopamine has to do with reward prediction error (notice my screen name?).

Another way of saying this is that dopamine neurons encode surprise. Now, “dopamine neurons” is a misnomer, because “dopamine neurons” also release glutamate. They fire both tonically and in phasic bursts, and those two patterns of activity have different implications for activity at different dopamine receptors (there are 5 major types + splice variants etc).

It’s also important to note that there’s a difference between reward and reinforcement, where you’d measure those in animals with different tasks. Cigarettes are addictive without being especially rewarding. Psychedelics are rewarding without being particularly reinforcing.

Dopamine also has to do with how hard you’re willing to work for rewards.

It’s totally true that intermittent reinforcement creates learning that’s most resistant to extinction. The reward might come next time, every time. Uncertainty increases tonic dopamine release. So far so good, mostly.

When we don’t know the next time we’ll see someone or are unable to predict their next move, that person becomes much more alluring to our brain. So that nice guy who performs these kind acts consistently rather than periodically feels less rewarding to the brain than the bad boy who takes turns treating you to wonderful dates and then also mistreating you with his disappearances, false promises, ambiguous statements, hot-and-cold behavior and sudden withdrawals of affection.

In other words? Our brains can become masochists, seeking the very people that hurt them. They become so accustomed to good behavior from nice guys that they stop releasing as much dopamine. That’s why even in a healthy relationship, we can become so “used to” the safety and security of a gentle partner that we find him or her less exciting over time.

Ah, habituation. Maybe I don’t get it because I’m autistic. I like the same thing over and over and over again.

This isn’t really a neurological problem in which the brain becomes masochistic, though. It’s a spiritual problem in our culture. What she’s talking about is called “not knowing how to be happy” or “the hedonic treadmill.” Buddha and Lacan both figured out that coming to terms with the inherent dissatisfaction of life is key. The world’s richest people aren’t the world’s happiest people.

Also, people needing to be “excited” all the time and trying to make life into a movie are a cultural problem we have.

Whether emotion is universal or social is a recurrent issue in the history of emotion study among psychologists. Some researchers view emotion as a universal construct, and that a large part of emotional experience is biologically based. However, emotion is not only biologically determined, but is also influenced by the environment. Therefore, cultural differences exist in some aspects of emotions, one such important aspect of emotion being emotional arousal level. All affective states are systematically represented as two bipolar dimensions, valence and arousal. Arousal level of actual and ideal emotions has consistently been found to have cross-cultural differences. In Western or individualist culture, high arousal emotions are valued and promoted more than low arousal emotions. Moreover, Westerners experience high arousal emotions more than low arousal emotions. By contrast, in Eastern or collectivist culture, low arousal emotions are valued more than high arousal emotions. Moreover, people in the East actually experience and prefer to experience low arousal emotions more than high arousal emotions. Mechanism of these cross-cultural differences and implications are also discussed.

People destroy perfectly good relationships all the time because they think something is wrong when the honeymoon period ends.

Oxytocin promotes not only attachment but also trust. Research shows that when oxytocin is involved, betrayal does not necessarily have an effect on how much a person continues to invest in the person who betrayed him or her. So the deception of a toxic partner doesn’t necessarily derail us from trusting him blindly, especially if we’re physically enmeshed with him. The oxytocin effect may also be stronger for women than for men; according to Susan Kuchinskas, author of the book, The Chemistry of Connection: How the Oxytocin Response Can Help You Find Trust, Intimacy and Love, estrogen tends to promote the effects of oxytocin bonding whereas testosterone dampens it.

Emotionally unavailable men, toxic partners and “bad boys” are often more exciting in bed. Whether this is because the intermittent reinforcement of their hot-and-cold behavior tricks our brains into thinking so or whether bad boys tend to have more sexual prowess remains to be seen, but the fact of the matter is, once we’ve bonded with them sexually, we’ve also bonded with them psychologically and emotionally.

The fact of nature that sex releases oxytocin increases bonding is important when justifying bad dating choices, but not important when deciding to have casual sex in the first place.

I wish she’d elaborate on this “better in bed” thing because I’m totally skeptical that it has anything to do with what the guys are actually doing. If anything, they’re by definition more selfish and less concerned with how their partner is feeling. It’s not like being a “bad boy” changes your dick. What she means is that she’s decided ahead of time she’d rather fuck them. Getting roughly pounded by some dude you can’t get close to is better than someone trying to make you feel safe and going down on you? Right…All that proves is that excitement != good sex. As bell hooks put it:

The best sex and the most satisfying sex are not the same. I have had great sex with men who were intimate terrorists, men who seduce and attract by giving you just what you feel your heart needs then gradually or abruptly withholding it once they have gained your trust. And I have been deeply sexually fulfilled in bonds with loving partners who have had less skill and know-how. Because of sexist socialization, women tend to put sexual satisfaction in its appropriate perspective. We acknowledge its value without allowing it to become the absolute measure of intimate connection. Enlightened women want fulfilling erotic encounters as much as men, but we ultimately prefer erotic satisfaction within a context where there is loving, intimate connection. If men were socialized to desire love as much as they are taught to desire sex, we would see a cultural revolution. As it stands, most men tend to be more concerned about sexual performance and sexual satisfaction than whether they are capable of giving and receiving love.

Next we turn to adrenal hormones and norepinephrine:

The unpredictability, fear and anxiety associated with a partner who either causes you to walk on eggshells and habitually leaves your head spinning releases adrenaline which has an antidepressant effect. We can become addicted to this effect. Fear also releases dopamine, which again feeds those pesky reward circuits in our brain, leaving us longing for that adrenaline rush. Fear and pleasure inevitably become intertwined despite our best efforts to expose and dismantle the seeming irrationality of our behavior.

Adrenaline, or epinephrine, does not cross the blood brain barrier. It’s a peripheral hormone. It causes physiological arousal, which we then interpret based on experience and concepts.

I take a norepinephrine-reuptake-inhibiting antidepressant (bupropion). If it was as simple as what she’s saying, that wouldn’t be necessary because all the stress-induced norepinephrine release should make us feel better! It’s not that simple, and the cortisol is probably worse for you than the over-arousal is good for you. Unlike norepinephrine, cortisol has nuclear receptors, meaning it affects gene transcription directly rather than indirectly.

Where do “fear and pleasure become intertwined?” Earlier there was supposed to be a pleasure center, so is it the same place? In fact, we have multiple, parallel learning systems. For example, cocaine produces conditioned place preference (reward) and conditioned taste aversion. It makes a great test question for undergrads. Even cocaine has aversive things about it, and those can be paired with a taste. We can have complex emotional experiences.


When we fall in love, we become obsessive like people with OCD…literally. Research has revealed that serotonin levels in our brains drop in a similar fashion when we are in love as they do in the brains of people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Since serotonin regulates and stabilizes mood, curbing obsessive thinking, you can imagine how low levels of it when we’re romantically involved with someone can cause our decision-making abilities and judgment to go haywire.

We can actually use tryptophan depletion to study this directly. “Haywire” is hardly the word I’d use to describe this:

Acute tryptophan depletion (ATD) studies indicate that low serotonin can lower mood and also increase aggression, although results vary somewhat between studies with similar participants. Lowering of mood after ATD is related to the susceptibility of the study participants to clinical depression, and some participants show no effect on mood. This indicates that low serotonin can contribute to lowered mood, but cannot-by itself-cause lowered mood, unless other unknown systems interact with serotonin to lower mood. Studies using tryptophan supplementation demonstrate that increased serotonin can decrease quarrelsomeness and increase agreeableness in everyday life. Social interactions that are more agreeable and less quarrelsome are associated with better mood. Thus, serotonin may have direct effects on mood, but may also be able to influence mood through changes in social behaviour. The increased agreeableness and decreased quarrelsomeness resulting from increases in serotonin will help foster congenial relations with others and should help to increase social support. As social support and social isolation have an important relationship with both physical and mental health, more research is needed on the implications of the ability of serotonin to modulate social behaviour for the regulation of mood, and for future physical and mental health.

Think MDMA.

Serotonin has more different kinds of receptors than any other neurotransmitter, because it’s the oldest. Been there since sponges. There’s no simple answer to “what serotonin does.” Different serotonin receptors can have opposite effects. 5-HT1A receptors decrease anxiety, where 5-HT2C receptors increase it, for example.

Even she shows some understanding of how complicated the interactions get:

Low levels of serotonin also encourage sexual behavior, so serotonin only makes it more likely that we’ll also be swept away by bonds created by oxytocin and dopamine as well. Since dopamine is also released when we recollect pleasurable memories, constantly daydreaming and reminiscing over the first romantic moments of a charming partner often has the effect of amplifying this circuit in the brain.

Did we need neuroscience to tell us this?

While our brain is definitely not out for our best interest when it comes to bad boys, that doesn’t mean our brains can’t be rewired for positive change. Neuroplasticity makes it possible for our brains to make new neural connections in productive ways such as exercise, healthy social bonds, music, new hobbies, interests and passions. The key to healing from bad boy addiction lies in substituting this unhealthy drug with healthier rewards and obsessions – those that truly nurture and nourish us, rather than those that starve us and leave us reeling for our next fix of crumbs.

Falling in love with a dangerous partner is very much like becoming a serious addict. In order to survive the withdrawal effects, we have to go cold turkey, or at the very least, begin to wean ourselves off from the high dosage of toxicity.

If neuroscience doesn’t straightforwardly explain it, what does? Social conditioning and ubiquitous trauma. The article is a long excuse for why you’re supposed to date assholes, because “we all do; it’s human nature.” Everything is human nature when it’s something fascists like, such as dating standards that favor them.

The answer to this problem is self-esteem.