A few months ago, a friend solicited advice on Facebook on how to encourage her young daughter to participate in a competition at school. Her daughter was resistant to participating, despite knowing that she could do well and having enjoyed this type of competition before.
The comments thread was filled with helpful advice from other parents. Some suggested boosting the girl’s confidence that she could win the competition, while others encouraged my friend to focus on the joys of competing, rather than the rewards of winning.
I felt that this advice, while well-meaning, was not really addressing the challenge as I saw it. I’ve been that little girl. In fact, on many days, in one area or another, I am that little girl. We all are. And when I am really resistant to doing something, envisioning the rewards – or even the joy of the journey – is not enough to motivate me.
Pain vs Pleasure
I have heard often that our actions and behaviors motivated, on some level, by our desires to avoid pain or seek pleasure. Behavioral scientists say that most people are motivated more by the desire to avoid pain than by the desire to seek pleasure. This principle is usually framed as a choice: we seek pleasure or we seek to avoid pain.
Most advertising is set up this way. Companies try to influence our decisions by showing us the rewards we will get from using their products or services. Using this shampoo will make your hair glossy. Driving this car will give you social status. And so on.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we are all familiar with attempts to influence our behavior by showing us the pain we will experience from engaging in – or avoiding – a certain behavior. A great example is the current crop of advertisements aimed at getting smokers to quit by show graphic detail of the physical deterioration that results from smoking.
Viewing my friend’s situation through this lens, I thought that her daughter expected the pain that would result from her engaging in this activity to be much greater than any pleasure she expected to derive from the process of competing or even the joy of winning.
Balancing the Scales
Framing our decisions and behaviors as a choice of pursuing pleasure or avoiding pain makes things simple, but I don’t see this as an either/or situation. Instead, I view this as a seesaw, with pain stacked on one side and pleasure on the other. Taking into account that pain avoidance is a stronger pull than pleasure seeking, I think we must stack the weights heavier on the pleasure side.
I admired the instinct of the crowd to instill in my friend’s daughter the joy of competing. This was good advice, but addressed only half the story: it was focused solely on efforts to build up the “pleasure” without addressing the “pain.”
Building up the rewards of the activity does not help unless we also acknowledge the pain being avoided. Understanding the pain first tells us what we’re up against. Without that knowledge, we don’t know how much pleasure we need to stack to outweigh the pain.
On the flip side, when we focus only on the pain that will result from an activity, we ignore the pleasure we derive from that activity. Even our worst habits serve us in some way.
The anti-smoking campaign focuses on the physical consequences of smoking: the very real, physical deterioration and pain that results from nicotine. But it ignores one of the biggest pleasures that smokers experience: the social connection they feel with other smokers. A person who smokes as a way to create connection with others will give a lot of weight to this particular pleasure involved in smoking. For that person, quitting the behavior means enduring the pain of losing social networks. The physical consequences of the behavior don’t weigh enough to balance out the scales.
My friend’s daughter clearly associated some pain with participating in the competition. My friend first had to understand the nature of that pain, and then she could address it by stacking the pleasure on the other side.
Becoming aware of this framework is a good first step. Employing it requires commitment, especially when it comes to identifying the pains we are trying to avoid. This part requires us to dig deep and be honest with ourselves. If we can do that, then we can start to make some real and lasting shifts.
At least, that’s what I think today. What do you think?