COLUMNS Word & Wisdom

Payoffs… (Why We Do the Things We Do)…

EVERY ONCE in a while, I wonder why I do some of the things I do to get through this life of mine. I work a lot. which dictates to some degree what choices I get to make. The money I make pays the bills but not enough for me to  make big changes in my life. I eat the same “mystery sandwich” everyday. I let the deli girls surprise me – hence, the mystery part to it. Why,  oh why, if some things work  and some things don’t –  why don’t I change the things that don’t.?

This is where I remember a professor from college, when I was getting my Master’s degree in counseling. He talked about The Payoff. What’s the Payoff?” And that is the question that often should be addressed. What is the particular payoff to a certain mode of behavior, be it habitual or just plain not beneficial?  He  asserted that the reason people do things, especially repeat behaviors, is that the person learns that it works to get his/her needs met.  The Payoff

The payoff in itself is not a bad thing. Everything we choose to do somehow is based on some form of a payoff…. a reward of sorts. If we work hard for an employer, the payoff may be raises, good reviews and an innate sense of having done a consistently good job. If we volunteer, we feel connected and good about ourselves.

What about those things that keep people back, impede a life, so to speak?  When we see others exhibiting behaviors that seem to be sabotaging their jobs, relationships and general self-respect,  it is natural to say, “Why would someone choose to do… X, Y, Z?”  Addictions fall into this category. Behaving badly within relationships  is another area .

Payoff. In this economic climate, I like this term. It sounds appropriate. Kids learn quickly how to get a parent’s attention, and if the appropriate efforts don’t reap a proper “payoff” – attention – then they learn that bad behavior will lead to the attention they desire.  I learned that working hard has its payoff, although sometimes not in a monetary sense. I like knowing that I have what my relatives would call a work ethic, for example. I want to know that even if something fails, its not for lack of effort on my part.

When someone consistently seems to disappoint by not following through perhaps, the payoff to that person could be a sense of power disguised as free-spiritedness, or  it could be just plain inconsideration. For that person, the payoff would be the sense of doing what they want when they want. If I, for example, put a lot of effort into excusing that behavior so that I was not personally disappointed, I would have to look at the payoff that exists for me. And is it worth it?   The payoff might be a relationship that makes me work too hard . Is it worth it?  Maybe not. I need to be willing to lose relationships that don’t work. The payoff – maintaining a dysfunctional relationship – is too high in terms of integrity and sense of self.

I believe in looking at things as they exist.  Sometimes all pieces of the pie do not fit well together. My relationships are flourishing but work is suffering. Or all is well, but I find a person has lied to me, for example, which  will immediately throw me into a pit of despair.

All the examples I gave above are creative examples. I’m fascinated with the idea of payoffs, and in my free moments, I do indeed wonder what areas of my life could be improved.. I would love to weed out the disappointments and letdowns and sadnesses that sometimes visit me. But in the world of payoffs, I look at the scenarios and learn from them. I’ve learned that sometimes one can predict a payoff (from a repeat behavior perhaps?), and if its disappointment or sadness, I don’t want it.  If that’s the case, I get to opt out. The payoff then is …. a happier me.

By Tobi Nason

Tobi is a Manzanita counselor.