Why Did I Do That?
All throughout life, you may find yourself in situations wondering how did I even get into this mess? What’s going on with me, or why did I do that? It seems as though civilization itself has long been on a quest to answer that very same question. The answer we eventually settle on, how we end up explaining ourselves to ourselves, will define the very root of our belief system.
In cognitive behavior therapy , we learn that our thoughts influence our feelings which in turn influences our behaviors. We also learn that behaving in new ways, or learning to regulate our emotions can have an equally great effect, as change can be initiated through modifications to any one point of the triad. In learning to piece apart these constructs, we can glean some understanding of why we think, feel, and behave the way that we do. However, it is true that without attention to this “cognitive behavioral triad”, we often have very little introspective access to the motivations that guide our choices and behaviors. In some cases, individuals are even known to confabulate explanations for their behavior .
Understanding the Function of Behavior
To borrow from the behavior analyst’s playbook, there are four noted functions of behavior that clinicians pay attention to when working from this model. Originally applied to children with ADHD or those on the Autism Spectrum, this framework may shed light on our own motivations in daily life. In this article, we will seek to explain why we act the way we do, and what could possibly be driving our behavior.
The first function of behavior to discuss is when we’re seeking access to something that is tangibly desired, be it an object, activity or person. This is what most people think of when they think of “motivation”, as it describes the process of working towards a goal.
In today’s current cultural climate, so often we prize western ideals of self-discipline and determination, and favor the ability to harness internal motivation to shape goal-directed behavior. However, these qualities do not describe many of us. For those who do not work this way, who are instead more environmentally-influenced, we become no stranger to feeling judged, less than, or defeated. Despite this inclination towards our more “relational selves”, in the face of challenges, we can learn to harness the environment to help us seek our rewards too. We may invite others to hold us accountable, or set up bonuses for ourselves for staying on target.
Another motivation for behavior is sensory, in that it feels good. It is automatically reinforced; behavior that persists for the sake of how it feels. Most bad habits persist in this way, behavior outside of our awareness continues because of how rewarding it feels in the moment.
One way to think about it is given to us in the work of Daniel Kahneman, who described decision making as a war between two mental operating systems: the experiencing self, and the remembering, narrative self. Sensory motivations are aligned with the experiential “you” that lives throughout each moment and convinces you that it is a good idea to spend the better part of the morning scrolling through social media when you should be getting ready for work. Later, it is your narrative self that writes the guilt and shame into the story of what you “should” have been doing during that time.
Perhaps the most well-known and most highly-accused motivation for behavior is attention. We know this to be true, because it is often the first hypothesis we come up with when brainstorming why our partner is acting in ways that are irritating to us. We can also see this idea in play in many parenting practices, or when we think back to any experiences we may have had with a child. Often for children, “any attention is good attention” is their motto, and when given a dose from a peer, adult, or even an animal, they learn to associate their behavior with that feeling of being loved, important, and worthy of others’ time.
As adults, we do a similar thing that may be expressed when we are particularly proud of some quality or accomplishment of ours, and desire for others to dote on us accordingly. When we do not feel like we’re getting the attention we deserve, it may be that whatever strategies we employed as children will continue to haunt us into adulthood , or that in this context, we’re drawn to these ineffective methods. For example, pestering a loved one with questions when they’re trying to get work done, or picking a fight with them to get their focus on you entirely. This is, of course, remedied by learning instead to ask for what we need, to communicate verbally rather than by any sort of outburst.
As adults, we may be more familiar with the language of avoidance and escape, as it truly offers a vital piece of understanding into why certain behavioral problems develop. The pattern is as follows: we experience an uncomfortable situation or emotional discomfort, we deal with it by removing ourselves from the situation (i.e., escape), feel better temporarily, and learn to stay away from potential future encounters (avoidance). The precipitating situation may be any number of things and will be varied for different people. Just as equally diverse are the numbing behaviors that individuals develop in order to cope with discomfort, such as turning to substances, food, sex, shopping, sleeping, or even Netflix.
It is not difficult to see how this becomes a problem, although even so, in the words of Dr. Brene Brown, author, researcher, and storyteller:
“You can’t numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects, our emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness. And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.”
When we are successful in escaping, avoiding, or getting what we want out of other people or life in general using these means, what occurs is that we are learning and reinforcing behavior patterns – patterns that ultimately are not helpful to us. As children, or when we have not yet learned more effective strategies, we often engage in methods that get the results we want. We replace effective channels of communication or problem solving with these ineffective ways of asking for what we need. For example, someone may wish that their partner would spend more time with them, and instead of saying as much, they pick a fight the next time their partner gets home late.
Over time, we cement these ways of engaging with others. Even though we may feel initially rewarded in the way that we hoped (what better way to get attention than to get into an argument), there often awaits long-term consequences.
Using this knowledge and understanding of the function of our behavior or motivations behind it can be a useful tool. With it, we can learn to choose alternative and more appropriate routes of getting our needs met.