Science Finally Explains the Appeal of the Not-So-Nice Partner

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How many times have you wondered why your friend (or, uh, you) keeps going back to someone who rarely ever treats her right? New York Times writer Richard Friedman explains that part of the reason we’re attracted to bad boys and girls might be the very fact that the good moments come so unexpectedly.

In a study cited in the article, subjects were given water and juice at either consistent or random intervals. M.R.I.s showed that subjects who couldn’t anticipate when they’d get the juice showed “greater activation in the brain’s reward circuit.” In dating terms, sex, cuddling and romantic gestures are the juice — and apparently we like it when we don’t know it’s coming.

Plus: The Problem With Saying “He’s Just Not That Into You”

I used to date this guy who routinely stood me up when better plans came along, pretended like he didn’t know me when I ran into him public and ultimately cheated on me. The two times he was sweet to me—once he surprised me with gelato and another time he took care of me when I had a cold — had me stick with him for an embarrassingly long time despite the almost constant disappointment.

For years after, I was ashamed of myself for putting up with his horrible behavior 90% of the time just to experience his rare sweet side. On top of that, I was confused as to why.

Friedman explains,

“Since unpredictable rewards cause more dopamine release than predictable ones and more dopamine means more pleasure, one implication of this study is that people experience more pleasure with unpredictable rewards than with predictable ones — but they may not be consciously aware of this fact.”

So the scary bonus to this theory is that what actually makes us happy — haphazard reward — is contrary to what we truly believe makes us happy — reliable, considerate partners.

Plus: How Do You Know If You’ll Ever “Click” With Someone As Much As You Did With Your Ex?

Should we throw in the towel and stop trying to date who’s good for us? We’re born this way, after all. Friedman says no.

“We use conscious knowledge to override our unhealthy or undesirable impulses all the time,” he writes. “Except for a few limited circumstances, we are expected to be in charge of our brains.”

Put down the Cheetos and half-written text to your withholding lover, folks. Science knows you can!


Plus: On Making, And Adhering To, A Perfect Boyfriend Checklist