Why You Keep Doing Things You Hate: Understanding Unwanted Behaviour Patterns

By Alice Boyes, PhD. | Uncategorized

“Psychological payoffs” hook people into behaviour patterns that provide some psychological rewards but that also have important downsides. Common examples of these types of patterns of unwanted behaviour include: overeating, procrastinating, problematic ways of interacting with other people, excessive spending, and excessive TV or internet.

This post is about how to stop unwanted behaviour patterns by understanding the hidden (and not so hidden) “psychological payoffs” associated with the behaviour. People generally don’t keep repeating behaviour patterns unless on some level they get something good from the behaviour. Once you understand what psychological needs are entangled with the unwanted behaviour you’ll be more effective at changing it and finding a more fulfilling alternative.

Let’s look at the different types of payoffs that commonly hook people into patterns of unwanted behaviour.

Think about a behaviour you want to do less of. You’ll get more out of reading this post if you identify one specific example from your own life and think about that example as you read.

In psychology PhD-speak, “payoffs” come in two varieties:

1. Getting more of something you want
2. Experiencing less of something you don’t want (avoiding difficult thoughts, numbing difficult emotions, or escaping from difficult situations or tasks)

And in different domains: emotion payoffs, thought payoffs, physical payoffs, and situation payoffs.

Any unwanted behaviour will have MULTIPLE different types of payoffs.

Emotion payoffs

What’s important to recognize is that unwanted behaviours are often associated with a mixture of wanted and unwanted consequences.

For example, when you break a diet and overeat you might feel guilt or shame but you might also feel elements of excitement that you’re rebelling against your self imposed rules.

What we’re trying to do here is build a full picture of all the different types of consequences of an unwanted behaviour so that you can understand it psychologically.

Does the behaviour you want to do less of provide any positive emotions? Which ones?
e.g. calmness/soothing/relaxation, joy, excitement, interest.

Does doing the behaviour reduce your negative emotions? Which ones? e.g. anxiety/fear/tension, shame, anger, loneliness, sadness, guilt?

Sometimes emotion payoffs will only be very mild (e.g. provide a mild sense of interest or excitement, or decreasing your anger only a little bit), but include these mild payoffs in your analysis because they’re part of the psychological picture.

One of the most important payoffs often associated with unwanted behaviour is reduced anxiety or tension. Lots of different types of unwanted behaviour help people temporarily reduce feelings of anxiety.

Thought payoffs

Thought payoffs come in lots of different types. I’m only going to be able to give some examples of a few of the important types here.

1. Thought payoffs can include distracting yourself from thinking about something that difficult to think about. For example, numbing yourself with media can be an effective distraction from thinking about aspects of your life and relationships.

2. Another important type of thought payoff is asserting your sense of being the master of your own destiny e.g. “I’m an adult and I can do what I want”. This often applies to unwanted behaviours that involve breaking your own or other people’s rules (e.g. spending money that’s not in your budget or breaking a diet). There’s nothing wrong with the deep psychological need of wanting to do what you want but if this need is popping up in your life in unwanted ways it might not be getting fulfilled in more healthy ways in other areas of your life.

3. Another important type of thought payoff relates to how you see yourself as a person and how others see you. Lets say it’s really important to you that other people know you’re a nice, fair, generous, or fun person. If that’s important to you it will be a powerful motivator of your behaviour. For example, if you view spending money freely as part of your fun-loving/carefree persona this might lead to you spending more money than you can afford. Or, wanting to be perceived as nice might lead you to be too generous in helping others. If doing an unwanted behaviour, validates your sense that you’re nice, fair, generous, fun (or whatever it is that’s important to you) then add it to your analysis. It’s an important psychological payoff.

It can work the other way too, e.g. if you want other people to see you as very in control/very independent, this might interfere with getting close to people (e.g. if the unwanted behaviour you want to overcome is difficulties with relationship closeness).

4. Yet another common type of thought payoff relates to “deservingness” thoughts. This is when doing the unwanted behaviour validates that you “deserve” the good outcomes that come with the unwanted behaviour e.g. You deserve to have the thrill of buying nice things, you deserve to treat yourself, you deserve to relax. Deservingness payoffs are often particularly powerful motivators of behaviour if underneath you’re ambivalent about your deservingness or you perceive yourself as having low worth (low self esteem). One of the solutions to this is to become more comfortable that you do deserve to have your deep psychological needs like pleasure and calm fulfilled and you also deserve to do it in a way that doesn’t get in the way of your other deep psychological needs like feeling in control of your behaviour.

5. You can learn more about understanding your deep psychological needs here – Surface vs. Deep Goals. Ask yourself if any of those deep needs are entangled with your unwanted behaviour.

Physical payoffs

Some types of unwanted behaviour have physical payoffs. For example for the short period after you eat a high sugar snack it might have a big payoff of increasing energy and reducing tiredness.

This intense short term physical payoff is likely to be very powerful in keeping you doing that unwanted behaviour during times you’re tired.

Situation payoffs

What happens after you do the unwanted behaviour?

For example, yelling at your child or partner might be effective in getting them to do what you need in the short term (even it’s not helpful for those relationships in the long term).

If you yell at your partner does s/he stop nagging you?

If you smack you children, do they stop vying for your attention and give you a break? In these cases, those outcomes are part of what’s keeping you doing the unwanted behaviour.

Does doing the unwanted behaviour (at least temporarily) “get you out of” something you don’t want to do or something that would be difficult to do?

Does sabotaging your relationships mean you avoid relationship closeness and commitment issues that would be difficult for you?

Does procrastinating at work mean you’re less likely to get promoted. Do you feel ambivalent about aspects of what being promoted would mean (e.g. you don’t want to do public speaking or travel, you like being one of the guys rather than a boss)?

What next?

Once you know what psychological needs are entangled with your unwanted behaviour, think about alternative coping strategies. These might be alternative coping strategies for the times when you might otherwise do the unwanted behaviour. Or, depending on what behaviour you’re focusing on, they might be alternative problem solving ideas (e.g. how you could become more comfortable with relationship closeness/trust) or broader ideas about how to get particular psychological needs fulfilled in your life in general (e.g. how you could increase your opportunities to assert yourself, have fun, try new things, or be respected by others).

Another great post to read for helping stop unwanted behaviour patterns is Understanding Your Triggers. Reading that post will help you identify your high risk situations for falling into the trap of unwanted behaviour and it talks more about how to choose alternative coping strategies.

Thanks for reading

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