I was listening to a podcast that featured an addiction researcher, and he was talking about how addiction manifests in the brain. He highlighted our learning method, which is something that has not evolved significantly since our ape ancestors:
Trigger > Behavior > Reward
Most behavior programs, such as recovery or diets, apply a kind of brute-force focus on changing behavior. The logic is that we know what we want, we figure out what it takes to get what we want, and if what we’re currently doing is not getting us what we want, we just change what we do. Simple!
And yet how many diets ultimately fail?
The researcher said what actually motivates and solidifies behavioral change is the reward system. That’s how we learn (and aren’t all behavioral change efforts a process of learning?). We do what we’ve been rewarded to do. We think what we’ve been rewarded to think. And unfortunately (or fortunately), our brain is hardwired with a system of rewards, such as dopamine or the comfort of cognitive ease, that makes even the thoughts we think and opinions we hold be subject to the reward effect. In other words, it can feel good to think along our existing ideological lines just the same way it can feel good to have a cigarette if we are regular smokers, or in the same way it can feel good to eat something sweet.
Basically, we are all Pavlov’s dogs.
That got me thinking of different relationship patterns I have that I recognize are not healthy. This year, I’m thinking specifically of my resistance to honesty. I’m very bad at being honest about what I’m thinking and feeling. I’ve always attributed that solely to my fear of hurting others, or my rather instinctive, authentic desire to please people. Neither of these are bad in-themselves, but they can lead me into unhealthy relationship habits if I’m not being careful to limit their influence.
But what if I looked at those behaviors through the lens of reward reinforcement? How have I been rewarded to do those things? And how I can figure out a new reward system that encourages me to be honest instead of deflecting?
There are certain rewards I received from my family unit that led to me being dishonest. There are certain rewards I received based on the way I am, the way I am wired to engage with people, that contributed to me being a people-pleaser. There are rewards I receive from society’s reaction to and acceptance of only certain types of women that led me to believe I had to look and act and sound a certain way in order to be a desirable person, to be a good person (good because I am acceptable, desirable).
Honesty is not always (not even generally) desired. It’s uncomfortable for others. So it’s no wonder I received a lot of reward-encouragement to be dishonest, if my honesty meant being something others found uncomfortable. Undesirable. Unacceptable.
I’m not sure what all is appropriate to unpack in this space (family issues whaaaat), but I would like to keep thinking about this. How do I change what I perceive as the rewards in my relationships? (Because something is only a reward if I perceive, receive, and treat it as such.) How can I reframe instances of honesty, in particular, as having a reward inherent in them? Aka, how I can at least define some outcomes as rewards and focus on the good things I get out of those uncomfortable conversations rather than focusing on the discomfort? Am I even able to change my reward system??
And THEN… what am I rewarding those around me to do? How am I giving out rewards, and what are those rewards? How does this change the way I act in my marriage, my friendships, my work relationships? (Not just on the honesty front, but in all areas.)
What are we rewarding people to do, and how would our relationships and communities change if we looked hard at our reward system and took something other than our personal comfort to be the goal?