As Templeton the rat bounded across the cage, his fuzzy white balls snagged on the wire mesh floor. He stopped suddenly, panic flashing in his beady red eyes. Tracy, my lab partner, chortled. “It’s not funny,” I said. “This rat’s oversized gonads are going to hurt our grade!”
All of our classmates’ rats had already learned that if they pressed a lever, they would receive a pellet of rat food. Stupid Templeton hadn’t even successfully walked across the cage. The lab was quiet except for the clicking of levers and the metallic ping of pellets hitting food bowls. I watched with envy as my classmates tallied their results. Templeton licked his balls.
I was in my second semester in college, and I’d signed up for a class where we trained rats using the theories of a 1950s psychologist named B.F. Skinner. Skinner argued that every aspect of behavior can pretty much be explained by a simple principle: if you receive a reward after doing something, you’ll repeat the behavior — and that’s as true for humans as it is for rats. Like many revolutionary scientific ideas, this may now sound obvious, but I found it to be a powerful and useful observation all the same. That semester, while training Templeton, I also trained myself to go to the gym and my roommates to stop leaving their clothes on the floor. I even trained my boyfriend.
The boyfriend training, however, didn’t quite work out quite as planned.
I’d been dating Ben since my freshman year in high school. A thin boy with greasy hair, Ben sat behind me in freshman homeroom. I kicked off our first conversation with a lie. He was talking about how he and his brother liked to play Metallica songs at home, but they needed a bassist. “I play bass,” I interjected. Actually, I played violin, but our romance blossomed anyway. We’d pass torrid love notes with heavy-metal lyrics in the margins, and talk on the phone every night until we fell asleep. Before school, we hid behind the band room and kissed, my hands buried in Ben’s long, unwashed hair. Our friends got together and broke up, my parents got divorced and remarried, but for four years of high school, Ben and I were inseparable.
I had such faith in our relationship, I decided to go to college in Massachusetts while Ben stayed in Florida. I sobbed the entire flight to school. I knew our love would survive the separation, but I wasn’t sure if I would. This was before the days of Skype and cell phones; expensive, long-distance phone calls were our only means of communication. So we set a schedule — ten minutes a night, five nights a week. Ben would call me using a cheap long-distance plan he’d found, and we’d split the bill.
At first, the plan worked beautifully — Ben called like clockwork. But after a few weeks, he missed a call, than two, then three. Sometimes, I wouldn’t hear from him for a week or more, and I sat by the phone feeling pathetic. Embarrassment would turn to rage, and eventually, I’d give in and call him. Often, he wouldn’t pick up. When he did, I’d lecture and cry. “Why?” I’d sob. “I just forgot,” he’d say. “I was watching Dawson’s Creek.”
While my personal life was falling apart, my academic career was taking off. Templeton the rat had learned to walk without dragging his balls, and he was finally bar-pressing like a boss. Tracy and I couldn’t keep up, so instead of rewarding him for every press, we started rewarding him about every fifth time — a technique known as variable ratio reinforcement. It’s the same principle that keeps gamblers at slot machines, and it turned Templeton into a lever-pressing maniac. He went from a leisurely rate of about one press every fifteen seconds to nonstop bar pressing, punctuated by short breaks to wolf down his rewards.
As I watched Templeton, inspiration struck: I could put Ben on a variable ratio reinforcement schedule, too. Instead of picking up the phone every single time he called, I would pick up the phone about every third call. I also needed to stop yelling at him when he did call — that’s like shocking the rat when it presses the lever. From now on, I vowed, I’d reward calls with phone sex, roommates be damned.
The first night was tough. The phone rang, but instead of leaping to pick it up, I sat resolutely on my bed. I desperately wanted to talk with Ben, but I managed to let the phone ring and ring until my voicemail picked up and put an end to the torture. I made a hash mark on a piece of paper tacked to the wall. Let the experiment begin.
Ben turned out to be an even better lab rat than Templeton. After a few months, he was back to calling every night. Our phone bills were atrocious, but our relationship was back on track. At the end of the semester, I pulled down my bedside chart and presented my findings. “It wasn’t that Ben had stopped loving me,” I concluded. “He had stopped calling because I was providing the wrong reward contingencies.” I got an “A” for the semester.
Three years later, I found out that I’d been very, very wrong.
It was my senior year, and graduation loomed. Like everyone, I was scared. How would I find a job when my only skills were training rats and arguing about literature? The future was uncertain, but I knew one thing: I’d be with Ben. We’d stayed together through high school and college, even though we lived hundreds of miles apart. Our relationship rested on a sturdy foundation of phone bills and behavioral conditioning — plus a dozen airplane tickets charged, unwisely, to my credit card.
It was with one of these tickets that Ben flew up to visit me and broke the news. He had been cheating on me for years, starting about the same time his phone calls dropped off. It was hard for him to find time to call, he explained, as he’d been banging a significant portion of the University of Florida’s undergraduate population. (Ben put it somewhat differently, but that’s what it boiled down to.)
I was heartbroken and furious. I could have been having marathon sex too. How many orgies had I turned down to wait patiently by the phone? Technically, not that many, but I was still mad.
Fast-forward ten years, and I have a new boyfriend. In fact, I moved in with him just a few months ago. He’s great — gorgeous, brilliant and, I hope, trustworthy. We do have one problem, though. He’s a slob. I’m constantly picking up dirty dishes he’s left around our apartment — on the bed, on his desk. I once found half a slice of pizza on the toilet.
Nagging hasn’t worked, and neither have tears. So, once again, I am turning to rat-training. Now, when my boyfriend remembers to put a dirty dish in the sink, I praise him lavishly. “Thanks for washing your dish,” I say, giving his shoulders a rub. When he puts a plate on the floor, I tickle him until he picks it up. This seems to be working, but I wonder if I’m missing the point. What if the pizza slice on the toilet means he doesn’t really love me? Could he be leaving every kitchen cabinet door open as a subtle cue that he wants me to move out? These are the paranoid musings of a once-betrayed heart. (The “once-betrayed heart” category, of course, includes everyone who didn’t marry their high-school boyfriend.) But what’s the fun in being totally happy and secure? I bet that makes for a dull life, and some very boring sex.
Sadie Dingfelder is a humor, travel and science writer in Washington, D.C.
This article originally appeared in Nerve’s True Stories.