John's Blog

The Blog of John Gibson, PhD

Behavior Change (part II)

This is part II of my post on behavior change. In part I said that I'm often asked how people change. Although there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, I did suggest a first step, which was useful for building motivation: make a list of all the ways your problem is costing you.

Now, for part II, I'm going to suggest you turn my first suggestion on its head: make a list of the payoffs the problem is giving you.

At first it may seems counter-intuitive to think this way. After all, a payoff implies something positive. If a problem is a problem how can it have a positive aspect to it? Let me illustrate what I mean with a common example: problem drinking.

Payoffs for problem drinking might be:

1. Generates positive affect (good feeling)
2. Reduces bodily tension from stress (calms the self)
3. Makes social interactions easier (decrease social anxiety)
4. Turns off the anxiety switch
5. Blots out memories
(And so on..)

In this example, the payoffs are fairly easy to spot. In the short run, alcohol can be quite effective in helping you cope. Unfortunately it's the long run that kills you.

Making a list of the potential payoffs is helpful because it helps you realize you may have to address more than just the defined problem. A problem drinker may be thrilled to finally get the monkey of alcohol off of his back--until he realizes he also has to deal with the underlying anxiety issue (or negative moods) masked by the alcohol. Making a list of payoffs helps you anticipate what you might miss if you decide to let the problem go.

The key point is this: sometimes our problems serve us in some hidden way. They may allow us to reduce anxiety, generate good feeling, or give us a reason to avoid something we’d rather not face. This may not be true with all emotional problems, but if you’re thinking about making a change you give it some thought.