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Allan Zuckoff Ph.D.

Why Don’t People Do What’s Good for Them?

The myth of being "unmotivated," part 2.

Why, I asked in my previous post, would people not be motivated to make changes that could improve their life?

And the answer is: It’s a trick question. People are motivated to do what’s good for them. The problem is that “what’s good for them” is often nowhere near as obvious as it sounds—and that, even if they can figure out what that is, they may not believe that it will be possible for them to do it. Simply put, at the heart of the myth of being “unmotivated” lies the frustrating, demoralizing, completely human state of ambivalence.

Imagine you begin to realize that something about your current behavior or situation might be a problem for you. You start thinking about making a change—and almost immediately you think about what making that change would cost you. Sure, losing weight and getting into shape will improve your health, give you more energy and zest, enhance your self-esteem. But it may also require you to give up sleep to work out in the morning, or lose precious time with family in the evenings; you may have to give up some of your favorite foods (and the comfort they bring) or tolerate feeling hungry (and the discomfort it causes).

When it comes to important life decisions, just about every option a person is faced with has costs (real and perceived) as well as benefits. To resolve your ambivalence you have to believe that the benefits of pursuing a path dramatically outweigh the costs—that the advantages of one option are clearly superior to the advantages of others. But what do I mean by “dramatically outweighs”? How superior is “clearly superior”?

Imagine that I told you there existed a special pill that, if taken once a day, would cause you to live to be 100 and never be sick a day in your life. Would you take it? Of course—the benefits of the pill far outweigh the minor inconvenience. But now imagine I told you that to receive the pill you would have to agree never to see any of the people you love again. Would you accept this bargain?

A long, healthy life is something that almost anyone would want—even make sacrifices for. Yet most of us value the people we love even more than we value our health—and when competing options provoke a conflict of values, you will almost always choose the option that you care about the most, even if it does bring costs of its own or seems wrong-headed to the people around you.

But let’s imagine you’ve decided that a particular change would bring many benefits and few costs and that it would be completely consistent with your values. Can we anticipate with certainty that you will take action to make that change? Not necessarily. If you expected your efforts to fail, the chances are very good that you wouldn’t even bother to try. And why should you?

Resolving ambivalence requires not only knowing the path that is right for you but also feeling confident about pursuing it—believing you can succeed at accomplishing what you hope to accomplish. If you believe you have a problem, but don’t believe there’s anything you’re capable of doing to solve it, you have only two options: denial or despair. That is, you can tell yourself that you really don’t have a problem (or that it’s not so bad) or you can face the idea that the problem is really serious but completely unsolvable and be consumed by hopelessness.

What influences how confident a person feels about succeeding at something? The most powerful factor is our previous experience of success and failure: successes build confidence and failures erode it, unless we decide the failure was just a setback and we’ll be able to succeed if we try a different approach. But it’s not just our history with a particular pursuit that shapes our beliefs about what we can accomplish; perceived successes in one area build confidence that we can succeed in others, just as perceived failures in one area can dent our confidence in general. And how we feel about ourselves overall—our general self-evaluation or self-esteem—can also play a role in whether we feel able to tackle any given challenge that we face.

People are motivated to do what’s good for them. When they see a clear direction forward—one that is consistent with their values and that they believe they can accomplish—they’re very likely to move ahead. What most people need to get unstuck is help deciding what’s right for them and believing in their ability to get there. That’s what motivational interviewing is designed to provide—and in posts to come we’ll take a closer look at how MI does it.


About the Author

Allan Zuckoff, Ph.D., is a psychologist, an expert in motivational interviewing, and the author of Finding Your Way to Change.