The Dating Behavior Analyst

by Farah Bacchus, M.A., BCBA, The Chicago School of Professional Psychology


It’s the dreaded realization that all single behavior analysts face when they realize the advice they have been giving to their clients is the same advice they should be telling themselves. It only takes a few phone calls to fellow friends or colleagues for the painful over-analysis of their dating behavior to begin.

Some questions that may bombard their minds are: What is maintaining my partner’s behavior? How am I reinforcing my partner’s behavior? Am I delivering reinforcement non-contingently?  What schedule of reinforcement I am providing?


Before we begin our analysis, let’s start off by operationally defining dating.  Dating can be defined as an individual engaging in a series of behaviors that increase the likelihood that one would obtain a mate. It could also be defined as the ultimate quest for our “one true love.” Skinner (1953) stated that “…love might be analyzed as the mutual tendency of two individuals to reinforce each other, where the reinforcement may or may not be sexual” (p. 310).


Therefore, the critical component of dating is the arrangement of contingencies of reinforcement. Chapman (2013) defines reinforcement obtained in relationships as “The five love languages.” These include words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, and physical touch. Translated in behavior analytic terms, these are social praise and social positive reinforcement in the form of tangibles, attention, and sensory stimulation.


Now that potential reinforcers have been identified, what is the ideal schedule of reinforcement? Well, it can’t be too thick and it can’t be too thin (get your mind out of the gutter).

Most of us would probably want our partner’s behaviors maintained by intermittent reinforcement, as that would produce high levels of responding that would be resistant to extinction. Theoretically, we can all agree that this would be ideal; however, can we hold ourselves accountable for providing this ideal schedule of reinforcement?


We can analyze a partner’s rate of responding to see what schedule of reinforcement may be in effect.  If your phone never rings during the week, and you are bombarded by calls and texts on Friday and Saturday night, congratulations, you’ve got a partner on a fixed interval schedule. Does your partner mysteriously go missing after an amazing date? Don’t call the police just yet; he or she is probably taking a post-reinforcement pause, due to a fixed ratio schedule of reinforcement.


So, I’m guessing it would be best to stay away from those fixed schedules of reinforcement and maybe try to maintain variable schedules: variable ratio for high rates of responding, and variable interval for steady rates of responding.


Overall, it is quite clear that we cannot escape the realities of behavior analysis, even as it relates to our love lives.  The truth is, the dating behavior analyst is searching for the ideal relationship where both partners reinforce each other’s behaviors. Hopefully, by analyzing the types of reinforcement, contingencies of reinforcement, and rate of responding we see in our relationships, we will be able to sort through all the non-examples of partners we might encounter in the dating world, and reach our terminal goal.


Chapman, G. (2013). The 5 language of love. Retrieved from

Skinner B.F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: Macmillan.




This piece was originally published as a part of the Summer 2013 STEP SIG Newsletter.

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