What Are Your Negative Gains?

I came upon a helpful tool for diagnosing why I sometimes do things that logically seem to be against my best interests. Odds are, you are probably doing it too without even knowing it.

The concept

The concept is “negative gain.” It is the positive reinforcement that one gets for doing behaviors that have negative results.

It is easier to make the changes you want once you are aware of what you get out of being the way you are. This is called the ‘negative gain’. It is what we give ourselves for unconsciously not choosing to be or do what we want out of fear of failing.

A negative gain provides a temporary compensation – a kind of second best – for finding an excuse not to do what we want to do, because our fear prevents us. Negative gains are false friends, because they seem to make us feel better in the short term, but turn out to be a sham as we realise we are failing to make things better for ourself.

We even feel worse when we keep on using the same old mechanisms of avoidance. Negative gains are different from 'rewards’ where we have chosen to be or do what we want. Examining some typical negative gains should make the concept clear…

Jim Barrett, Total Leadership


Negative gains come in all shapes and sizes. Let’s examine a few.

A single guy sees a pretty girl across the room.


He thinks about going over there to talk to her, but talks himself out of it instead. He doesn’t approach her.

The negative gain is not putting himself in a position to be rejected, to not have to make changes to his persona, to be comfortable with whatever default behavioral scripts he has accumulated thus far in his life.

However, there are clear negatives:

  • not developing the skills to cope with minimal rejection
  • not developing the skills of small talk
  • not increasing his social network
  • feeling like he chickened out
  • mild feelings of regret or disappointment
  • maybe missing out on some great times

At the time, it doesn’t seem all that poor of a decision, but inaction adds up. What is comfortable today is more comfortable tomorrow.

The difficulty comes from the fact that there is some positive feedback which reinforces the behavior. It’s easy to think behavior will one day magically change by itself, or that things aren’t that bad. But every time one does the behavior, it just reinforces that way of behaving.


When you find a habit difficult to break or regularly find yourself in a situation that doesn’t seem to make much sense, you can analyze your thoughts to see what you get out of the behavior or environment. If it helps, imagine you were given an option to change right now and what thoughts might hold you back. I find it useful to journal to record the thoughts that you have so you can later process them objectively.

An unsatisfying job:

  • “The money’s OK at my job.”
  • “What if the next job didn’t work out?”
  • “I’d probably like the next job just as little.”
  • “Maybe it’s wrong for me to make more money.”
  • “My family wouldn’t approve of me quitting.”
  • “Well, I’d probably have to move. What a pain!”

A romantic relationship going downhill:

  • “The sex is pretty good.”
  • “I’d feel lonely if I wasn’t in a relationship.”
  • “My life is kind of exciting with some drama.”
  • “One of us will probably cry if we break up.”
  • etc.

Generally journaling reveals that some underlying beliefs will make it hard to change immediately. Why would I try to change jobs if I believe that I wouldn’t be happy in the next place anyway? Also present are many untested assumptions. Who knows for sure that I couldn’t find another job, or what could I learn to make myself more valuable?

After identifying things that psychologically and logistically prevent change, the next step is to explore the assumptions and change limiting beliefs. Maybe I need to change my deep-seated views about my own self-worth to make it alright to make more money. Maybe I need to talk to my family about changing jobs so that I know they support me and I can put my full effort into finding something that makes us better off. Sometimes constraints are just in my head.

Negative gains have some components that are both good and bad. Like the best villains, negative gains have properties that others can understand, which might garner sympathy. But sympathy is no way to live life. I want to address and fix that which holds me back, not merely work around it.

It’s difficult to change behaviors without having something to replace them with. By understanding what you get out of your current behaviors, you can understand how to break free of them.

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