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The “Pain of the Problem” versus the “Pain of the Solution”

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Marie Meyer, Ph.D. was a professor emeritus in the Psychology Department at Hofstra University, who taught that “people make changes only when the pain of the problem exceeds the pain of the solution.”  For a person who is in the throes of a problem, solutions are often difficult to see.  Then someone or something comes along (e.g., a family member, a friend, a book, a professional, a television program) and “poof” a solution becomes apparent.  Problem solved, right?  Not so fast.  Even when an otherwise intelligent, rational person is made aware of a solution, there is one major hurdle that remains: The pain of the solution.  You see, the problem brings obvious pain, but the solution also brings some “pain” in the form of physical effort, mental effort, emotional effort, cost, time, social pressure/stigma, etc.  For example, let’s say that Bob has a “bad knee.”  Initially, he hobbles a bit only when he first wakes, but then with a few minutes later he’s fine and off to the races.  Over time, though, the knee gets worse and causes Bob discomfort all day.  The orthopedist recommends knee replacement surgery.  Bob declines, because the problem is not “that bad” and the solution of surgery brings with it a lot of pain.  Of course, the knee gets progressively worse (i.e., the pain of the problem builds), and some other “less painful” solutions are tried, but fail or provide only temporary relief (e.g., use of ibuprofen, physical therapy, a heating pad, etc.).  Six months later Bob is crippled in pain, and no longer able to go to work, socialize, or enjoy time at home.  Low and behold, Bob chooses to have knee replacement surgery.  Why did he change his perspective about the surgery?  Because the “pain of the problem” (i.e., his “bad knee”) exceeded the “pain of the solution” (i.e., the physical, emotional, and financial cost of surgery and rehab).  This cycle repeats itself in virtually every decision that we make about improving our position in life (e.g., behaviorally, medically, emotionally, financially), and this also applies to behavior management options and solutions that we may choose to use with our children. 

Consider, for example Johnny, who demonstrates mild tantrum and aggressive behavior (e.g., incidents only occur at home, a couple of times per day, and only last a minute or so per incident).  At that time, Johnny’s mother may reject a “big gun” solution like immediate and consistent “Time-out”.  In the perception of Johnny’s mother, the “pain of the problem” does not exceed the “pain of the solution” (or, in plain English, “the problem is not that bad”).  But if over time, Johnny’s tantrum and aggressive behavior worsen (e.g., he becomes aggressive in social settings, he is “kicked out” of daycare, he sustains tantrums for over 2 hours), then immediate and consistent use of “Time-out” may start to look very appealing to Johnny’s mother (even though it comes with the cost of physical effort, emotional effort, social pressure/stigma, inconveniences, etc.).  Why did Johnny’s mother change her mind and accept the more intense solution of immediate and consistent “Time-out”?  Because the “pain of the problem” exceeded the “pain of the solution” (or, in plain English, “the problem got bad enough”).  To draw an analogy from History: Which wars are the toughest, those that were engaged in too soon, or those that were engaged in too late?  Clearly, with 20/20 hindsight, most historians would agree that the later you engage an aggressor, the more difficult the war will be.  Going to “war” over a particular behavior is not an easy decision, largely due to this very issue.  At what point do you say “enough is enough” and when do you decide to “engage” and “take on” the problem? 

While this may seem like a basic point as laid out in these simple examples above, in practice, this issue represents a significant impediment for otherwise intelligent, rational parents who want to implement behavior management changes for their children.  When viewed in terms of the “pain of the problem” versus the “pain of the solution,” “Maximum Strength Parents” can more clearly “weigh” the problem and then make a comparison to the costs and benefits of various solutions that are identified.  Indeed, as Professor Marie Meyer taught for years, “people make changes only when the pain of the problem exceeds the pain of the solution.”

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