What’s Behind Our Secret Habits and Superstitions

The simple explanation for our compulsive behavior, and the way to stop.
Published on October 14, 2014 by Teri Woods, Ph.D. in Compulsive!

An intelligent 36-year-old woman weighs about 50 pounds more than is healthy and knows what she needs to do to hit her target weight. During the day, she counts calories, logs her meals, and monitors her pedometer to assure she’s getting 10,000 steps in. She works out four hours a week at the local gym. And she drives home every night along a special route that takes her past seven fast-food restaurants so she can order a greasy drive-thru meal from each. Her goal is to have each one completely eaten before she reaches the next restaurant on the route. She disposes of the bags and wrappings at a gas station three blocks from the middle-class home she shares with her husband and kids. Once home, she cooks a dinner they’ll all share that evening.

A happily married woman with a wide circle of friends is out for a day of shopping. She’s just gone through the checkout line, gathered up her purchases, and taken the change handed her by the cashier. She finds the closest free bench in the mall and sits down. Then she pulls out her wallet and organizes her money. Nickels go in one zippered compartment, heads facing the interior of the purse. Dimes and quarters have their own section, all with heads facing front. The paper money she arranges not in order of denomination, but by each bill’s serial number. Once every piece of money is in place, she picks up her packages and heads out.

A healthy, attractive man in his mid-twenties begs off an evening of drinks with friends. Instead, he goes to his apartment, swallows a few Tylenol, and pulls the old vise his father left him from out of the bottom of his closet. He puts a rubber bit in his mouth. A few deep breaths later, he places his slippered left foot into the vise and starts turning the crank. He focuses on the pain, turning the crank harder and cursing the inner voice telling him to stop. He concentrates, needing to hear the moment his foot breaks.

What compels these high-functioning adults to engage in behaviors that seem to make no sense? Why would the young man willfully hurt himself, or the overweight mother sabotage all the good work she puts into her health each day? And what’s the deal with our money lady?

Why do they do these things?

It’s easy to figure out the “why” behind adaptive behavior, isn’t it? We eat because we’re hungry. We sleep because we’re tired. We spend time with our friends because they make us smile—and we clean our toilets to avoid unpleasant odors and disease. But what about behaviors that don’t have such an obvious cause and effect? We all do something, ranging from quirky to self-destructive, that seem on the surface to have no benefit at all. When those behaviors get in the way of our being able to function at the level we or society thinks we ought to, we label them as compulsions. We can’t explain why we do them, but there’s a certain discomfort if we don’t. Some of us may display our gently eccentric behaviors and proclaim, “That’s just how I roll.” Our more destructive behaviors we do in secret and explain to no one.

Yet still we wonder why.

Here’s the answer: We do the things we do because they work for us. It’s as simple as that.

Every behavior we repeat offers a reward. It doesn’t matter if the reward isn’t obvious. Nor does it matter that the consequences appear to cause pain or misery. The reward is there. And as anyone who’s ever trained a puppy or raised a child knows, behavior that is rewarded will be repeated. Behavior that is ignored will go away. Compulsions, those anxious behaviors driving us to do all kinds of seemingly crazy things, carry their own reward.

Consider the nervous flyer who has a certain ritual he follows on every business trip. He always sits on the aisle. He double-checks the exit row to make sure the people there seem competent to manipulate the emergency door. He hangs on every word of the flight attendant’s safety announcement, despite his familiarity from so many previous trips. During liftoff he recites the names and birthdays of each of his children, and he takes sugar in his in-flight coffee, though he drinks it black at home.

Seem a little odd? What could be the “win” here? Simple: The plane lands safely, and all of his ritualized behavior is rewarded. His brain doesn’t care that planes take off, fly, and land safely thousands of times each day. His brain has linked his rituals and safe landing, and thinks on some level that he made it happen. It’s like that old joke about the man standing on a busy Wall Street corner hopping on one foot. A guy asks him what’s up. The hopper says, “I’m keeping the polar bears away.” The guy responds, “There are no polar bears on Wall Street!” The hopper smiles and says, “Yeah, I’m doing a great job.”

That’s the link our brain makes. Our guy on the plane just wants it to land in one piece. He wants to feel safe. He’s allowed to want that; it’s his win and he’s chasing it. There’s nothing crazy about it.

What, then, do we make of those compulsive behaviors far more sinister—the compulsions that interfere with regular human functioning or even health?

We look for the win. We find what it is these people are chasing and work to replace it with another, less costly, way for them to get it. The question isn’t “why,” but “what”: What is the win?

The woman with the money organized so peculiarly had a father who arranged his own coins and bills that way. She often teased him about it. But when he died she missed him and yearned for the fun they’d shared. One day, on a whim, she sorted her money just like Dad. It felt good. It harmed nothing, eased her grief, and let her feel closer to a man she loved dearly. So she kept it up until it became uncomfortable not to sort her money like that. She deserved those wins. The “cost” of her behavior is minimal and no respectable psychologist would insist that she change that compulsion.

It took a while for the woman with the seven nightly fast-food stops to discover her particular win. She came to realize that food had always been the way her family celebrated achievement. Got an A on that term paper? Let’s go for pizza. Played Chopin’s sonata flawlessly at the recital? Ice cream for everybody! She was now married to a quiet man who withheld praise. She worked as a marketer in a high-tech firm where no sale was ever big enough, and no contract ever long enough. No one marked her good and hard work. She yearned to have her accomplishments recognized, so her brain served up the activity it had been taught all those years ago. It wasn’t the food she was chasing, it was the win of recognition. So she learned to ask her husband and family to listen and comment on her successes—and started getting her win in a way that didn’t cost her the calories, grease, and guilt of the drive-thru.

And the young man who crushed his foot? Some old-fashioned detective work with his therapist led him to his win as well. He came from a family of high achievers—prep schools, Ivy League colleges, long and accomplished careers. But he wasn’t moving up the corporate ladder as fast as he imagined his parents would have hoped. Any attempt to discuss his struggles with his mother or siblings only led to abrupt admonitions to work harder and do better. The only time he could recall his parents being tender with him was when he fell off a horse at age 11, breaking some bones, cracking a couple of ribs, and bruising one entire side of his body. He was allowed to come home to heal. His parents set up a place on the sofa for him and checked in several times a day to make sure he was on the mend. He felt warm and connected to his family in a way he hadn’t before. That was his win. So, when he found himself, as an adult, yearning for that closeness and support, his brain served up the only thing that had brought it to him before. It wasn’t the pain or the injury he was chasing. It had nothing to do with self-punishment or distraction. He wanted to feel connected, so he learned to develop alternate behaviors to give him the win his brain was chasing and was eventually able to set aside the need for self-harm.

Teri Woods, Ph.D., is a psychologist interested in OCD, self harm, and other self-sabotaging behaviors. She is also the author of three thrillers.