In my most recent blog post, I described 10 ways that falling in love is like smoking crack cocaine, and the first phase of my three-phase model was called the “cocaine rush phase.” I discussed how the model helps us understand how the cocaine-rush phase may extend in some cases for several years, and cited military combat deployments and long-distance relationships as two situations in which a state of fantasy can be prolonged for an extended period of time.
The dose-response patterns operate not only in macro, but in micro ways as well. For instance, playing hard to get could be conceptualized as a way to control the dosing of pleasurable hits to the brain when there is intimate contact. Certain people understand this well and will entangle others by manipulatively varying professions of adoration and commitment with periods of unexplained withdrawal. (In fact, in another post, I argued that unresolved trauma can chum the water for psychopathic sharks in the dating pool.) In some cases, the behavior of alternating between displays of devotion and sudden withdrawals of attention is a test of what a potential partner is willing to stand for. We might even map this onto the behavior of a shark circling around and bumping up against potential prey to see what this elicits in response. In a relationship context, will the other person be assertive, submissive, or equally withdrawn in response?
Not only can people strategically induce, artificially escalate, or even permanently deprive others of these rush feelings (e.g. “ghosting”) in a given relationship, situations can have powerful effects on the induction of these feelings. In my book, Marriage, for Equals, I proposed a thought exercise involving a hypothetical panel of unethical psychologists advising producers of ABC's reality-TV dating franchise "The Bachelor” on how to manipulate contestants into false feelings of love. The reality is that all of the factors in the scripting of reality TV shows like "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette" are meant to induce these cocaine rush feelings in order to promote what are, in most cases, ultimately reckless attachments and unsustainable relationships.
Following are 5 examples of how powerful psychological principles can amplify cocaine-rush feelings during the romantic attachment process:
1. The seclusion effect.
Separating the contestants from "the bachelor" ensures that the powerful principal of scarcity will be tapped to full effect. Simply put, the scarcity principle operates as follows: When options are scarce, what is available becomes more attractive. For the duration of the show, the world shrinks to one man and his harem of women (or vice versa) which effectively reduces the range of choices to this one love object. The same principle that helps used-car salesman sell a car (“Just a minute; let me check—I think it’s the last one we have on the lot so I need to see if it still here”) also increases competitive (and appetitive) drives of contestants on the show. The intoxicating alternation between the state of being prevented access to the bachelor and the state of being chosen (on what must feel like a random interval reinforcement schedule) for dates that involve both physical proximity and situations that masquerade as emotionally intimate will heighten the addictive power of the contestants’ connections.
2. Emotional cross-pollination.
On the flip side, quartering the female contestants together in a shared house not only prevents access to this mysterious stud, but also prompts the women to do the work of advertising the bachelor’s purported charms to each other. Provide contestants with a steady flow of alcohol and little else to do for several weeks and we can count on a high level of emotional contagion between them. The constant cross-pollination of each others' minds with such fantastical statements such as “He’s so sweet!”; “He’s such a good man!”; or “She’s SO lucky that she gets time alone with him!” enhances each woman’s detachment from her independent thinking ability. This process will be much more effective than any brainwashing campaign run along more traditional lines because the source of the messages about the bachelor’s desirability is multiply-derived and so seemingly un-orchestrated.
3. The illusion of power.
Making the reality-TV bachelor’s intrusions into the bachelorette pad unpredictable and on his terms builds a false reality that he is a powerful man of the world who keeps others waiting on his schedule. Likewise, bachelors are temporarily imbued with all sorts of superpowers—the power to afford dates at glamorous locations, the power to shut down the Hollywood bowl for a private concert, the power to summon incredibly talented musicians to remote locations to stimulate some intimate dancing, etc. In the miasma of such fantasy, it may never occur to the contestants that they are really dating ABC, which is the true provider of the lifestyle with which they are falling in love.
4. Excitation transfer theory.
Thanks to a group of researchers from the University of Texas, Austin, we know that when you put people on a roller coaster, their ratings of the attractiveness of potential love interests will be higher than if you asked them to rate these individuals after knitting a scarf. This finding has been repeated in other hair-raising scenarios such as walking on swinging bridges. Excitation transfer theory basically means that when you get aroused by anything, whether it be bungee jumping, riding a roller coaster, or even jogging on a treadmill—when your heart rate goes up in the presence of an attractive person—you’re likely to misattribute your general level of excitement to excitement caused by the attractive person. Perhaps this is why helicopter rides, cliff diving, and scaling tall buildings are such common date activities on “reality” TV mate-matching shows.
5. Narcissistically stimulating dates.
Staging dates that center on narcissistic fantasies allows these experiences to quickly be subsumed into a scripted "love story." I really liked Titanic so this is not a dig on the movie, but it is no coincidence that what seemed like the turning point in the experience of Rose falling in love with Jack was when he introduced her to a scenario that led her to feel she was "flying" from her position "on top of the world." In recent seasons of "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette"—I don't watch all of them, and when I do, it is purely with scientific interest!—there have been a number of dates that involve a performance element. That is, after some practice, contestants are prompted to perform in front of a large audience. This might be terrifying for some but for others it is a pure thrill. When contestants start to say things like, “I feel like I’m living in a fairytale…I’m going to be dancing in front of 2000 people. I seriously got chills," it is but a hop, skip, and a jump for someone to feel, “This must be love because I feel so amazing whenever I’m with [insert whoever happens to be on the narcissistically stimulating date].”
As I wrap up, it feels important to make the point that there is nothing wrong with cocaine rush feelings at the start of a new relationship. Relationships that last for a lifetime begin with a rush phase. The point I’m trying to make is that we must not take explosively positive feelings as a reliable marker of “true love.”
How Cocaine Rush Feelings Are Stimulated on "The Bachelor"