Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Give Your Date A Cookie!

Joe Lencioni,
How many times has this happened to you? You go out and meet someone, start having a good time, and 15 minutes into the conversation you realize that they are boring, lame, a real jerk, etc. Maybe that has even happened with your boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse at some time. They seem to switch from pleasant to annoying before you even know what happened. The good behavior evaporates and you're left with something only Satan himself could love.

You know what else? It could be your fault...

Before you write the flaming comment, hear me out lol. Too often when things go sour on a date, or in a relationship, we're quick to blame someone else. It's easy to point out what they "did wrong". But, we seldom look at what we did to influence their behavior (or what we didn't do). And, despite how ineffective we might feel at times, we can have a very big impact on the behavior of our dates and partners.

Sometimes the difference between a good date (or partner) and a bad one is a little technique. All it takes is a "cookie"...

The Power of Reinforcement

Reinforcement, in Psychology, is a process that uses a "stimulus" (e.g. gestures, words, rewards, food, etc.) to increases the probability of a behavior. Basically, it is giving another person something, after they perform a behavior, that makes them want to do it again. We're all "reinforced" all the time. We're constantly being rewarded for different behaviors. Here's a simple example...

If a kid gets an A on his homework...then he gets a cookie from Mom (that's why I was a fat kid). The cookie "reinforces" the desired behavior (getting an A). As a result, the kid performs the behavior again, because he wants another A paper and another cookie!

Well, this works in dating and relationships too. In fact, we're doing it constantly! Most people are just not doing it consciously.

Suppose a guy goes out on a date with his lovely girlfriend... He's rambling away as usual, "bla, bla, bla". She's paying attention to him, smiling, and laughing (sometimes). Because he desires her attention and she's very cute, her reactions are reinforcing to him (like a cookie).

So, when she's paying attention to him, laughing, and smiling...He keeps talking about whatever it is that he's talking about. He wants another cookie (more attention, smiles, etc.). When she looks away, he finds a different topic to get her attention back. His behavior is influenced by the reinforcement of her attention. As a result, he keep talking about the things she likes...

The Problem with Reinforcing "Unintentionally"

Now suppose it is the guy's turn. He is being particularly distracted on this date. He is looking everywhere else except at his lovely girlfriend. There is probably an aquarium at this restaurant and the pretty fish are more entertaining than she is at the moment.

The girl tries every topic to get his attention. She may flirt, talk about cars, etc. Still no attention. Then, she gets annoyed (gim'me a cookie!). In her frustration, she insults her date. Oops! But, wow, it actually "gets his attention". The guy even gives a little weird giggle (because he's embarrassed). But, it is STILL attention. That means it is STILL a cookie (reinforcement). So, she proceeds to be "reinforced" in her insulting...and she berates her date for the rest of the meal. He keeps paying attention to the insults, she keep getting reinforced to insult by the attention, and the whole process continues through dessert and the car ride home.

It becomes the date from hell... What happened? Well, the girl is just trying to get her cookie. The guy is just distracted with the fishes. No one is steering this relationship process. So, it all goes down the tubes for the night.

That is why you don't rely on "luck" in your social life. You make sure that you're reinforcing the behaviors that you want from the other person. You make sure to intentionally give your date a cookie!

How to Give a Cookie

1) Understand the cookie - To truly reinforce, we must first understand what stimuli are reinforcing. We need to find out what your date "likes" and responds to in a positive way. There are a lot of individual differences, so you may need to try a few things until you see what works. For example, I love being the center of attention (reinforcing), but a shy person would not. Generally though, "basic needs" such as food, water, kind treatment, appreciation, light complements, respect, and comforting (non-creepy) touch are all good for reinforcement. Also, if they need/want something from you directly, that can be used as a reinforcement (e.g. "That is a really cool story [behavior]. Here is that drink you wanted [reinforcement]. What other cool stories do you have? [behavior]").

2) Time the cookie - A behavior must be reinforced after it is performed - and soon after. This associates the behavior with the reward. If my date tells a joke and I don't laugh for 3 minutes, then she will think I'm laughing about the current topic, not the joke. The wrong behavior will get the cookie. So, pay attention! Give them the cookie as soon as they are behaving in the way you like. When they are being polite, make eye contact and smile. When they are taking out the trash, give them a kiss. When they talk to you pleasantly for awhile, then buy them a drink and tell them you appreciate the good company. When they come home with the surprise bouquet of flowers, immediately take them to the bedroom... You get the idea :-)

3) Withhold the cookie - Not every behavior gets a cookie, only the one's we'd like to see again. If your date is freezing you out, or your partner is being a nag, then they don't get a cookie until the attitude changes. When you do something good while someone is behaving badly, you are only reinforcing the bad behavior. Don't do it. Instead, ignore them until they are more pleasant. Or, better yet, find some small part of their behavior that you do like, and reinforce that. Point it out and make it grow (e.g. "I know we're arguing, but I'm glad you want to work things out  [partial good behavior]. I love you for that [reinforcement]").

4) Repeat the cookie (with variety) - Cookies don't work as well when they are given every single time. So, don't stare like a stalker every time your date says he/she likes you. Take a break now and then. Mix up the types of cookies. Smile at one joke. Laugh at the next. Skip one. Touch arm on the next. No one likes the same cookie over and over. Plus, we all appreciate a cookie more when we have to work a little harder to get it. So, skipping a cookie now and then is okay too (called a "variable ratio schedule" for the Psych nerds).


So, the next time you're having a good date...give them a cookie!

When your partner does something you like, don't forget to...give them a cookie!

Cookies make the world go around. Let me know how they work for you.


  1. Hmmm...So should I always bring a cookie to every first date?

    As a man, I have often experienced women "turning cold" on blind first dates when they find out I'm not the success object they expected. This happened to me more than once in Manhattan: the woman starts out smiling sweetly and being friendly and flirtatious, then she brings up careers and university degrees, and as she realizes I'm not the surgeon, or lawyer, or executive, or Ph.D. she was hoping for, her face goes blank and she starts looking bored. What's the best way to deal with that?

  2. Excellent question. There are a lot of reinforcers (cookies) in the world. Sometimes people get focused on their "favorite" type of cookies. For example, some women initially look for attention or gifts from "success object" men as their "preferred" reinforcement. Just like some men look for attention or sex from blondes with large chests as their preferred "cookie".

    However, while a rabbit might initially "prefer" a carrot, it will also really enjoy lettuce too (if presented correctly). Similarly, men and women may have a preferred "cookie", but can also come to appreciate what you are bringing to the table as your own reinforcement. Just because someone thinks they want something, doesn't mean they can't be enticed by something else too!

    My advice then would be to be proud of the "cookies" you do have to offer. Be excited about yourself and get your date excited about your "cookies" too. Focus on your strengths. Perhaps you are a musician, or cook, handy around the house, or good at massage? Maybe you are a sparkling conversationalist or a good listener? All of these things can be "rewarding" for someone else.

    Also remember, to a degree you are shaping her behavior. So, it isn't as much about the "type" of cookie, as it is about when you're using it. If you "react" to her turning cold, you might reinforce that bad behavior and get it to continue. Instead, just assume everything is fine - and reward something good she is doing. At the very least, she is still sitting there, so give her some kind of "cookie" for that. Or, if she was "fun and flirty" earlier, bring her attention back to that...reinforce...and get the behavior going again. "You were really cute a moment ago when you said X...I like that (cookie)...let's talk about that some more".

    Remember, it is you who has the treat. You give it when they are behaving as you like. You withhold it when they are not. If a date turns cold, then she doesn't get a cookie until she smiles again. Her loss. Trust me, you don't really want to be bothered with a grump who doesn't have a "sweet tooth" for your cookies anyway...

  3. My suggestion to Anonymous' question would be to focus on the underlying motivations for her behaviour. Talk about what makes people happy and how it's not necessarily related to degrees. Is she doing something that's making her happy? Best question ever - if you could do whatever you want with your life without the risk of failure, what would that be. If she says "financial accountant" you may have to interpret that more graciously than if she says something more exciting, but it should always be related to some fundamental motivation of hers. If's actually doing something that's not in line at all with what she said she'd like to be doing, that may be why she's so focused on superficial success. In that case, I'd play a couple of games, possibly truth or dare with appropriate questions, to lighten the mood and get some idea about what kind of cookie she'd appreciate.