Why Cooperate?

How many times have you heard someone say, "you’re just being nice to me because you want something"; as though doing the right thing isn’t good enough unless the behavior is driven by the proper motive.

How can we know another person’s motive? Behaviors we can see, motives are sometimes obvious, but often they’re more complicated and illusive.

Little Mike cleans his plate because he wants the candy that will come later, but only if he eats his dinner. Judy cleans the kitchen extra well after doing the dishes without being asked. She wants an extension on her curfew time because there’s a special event that runs late. Roger sits and talks with his mother about stuff that’s not really interesting to him. He wants to get his grounding lifted sooner than the prescribed amount of time.

Robert brings his wife flowers because he wants her to forgive him for treating her badly at last night’s party. He wants to buy off some guilt. Joan is on her best behavior because Ken has threatened to divorce her if she doesn’t shape up. Rita agrees to put off having children for another couple of years against her better judgement because she knows how much Paul wants that new house. She sincerely wants Paul to be happy, but she also knows what a bear he can be to live with if he doesn’t get his way.

John does an extra special job on a report his boss has been waiting for because he wants his name included on the report. He intends to use whatever he can to make a reputation for himself. He plans to apply for a different job soon.

The senator agrees to support a bill he doesn’t agree with because he’s been promised reciprocity on a different bill that he considers essential. I’m told politicians do this all the time. It’s the norm in politics.

Cynthia and Carter sought the help of a marital therapist after Carter discovered Cynthia was having an affair. She says she had a wake up call; she realized all she has to lose and how much she values Carter and their life together with their four children. She’s done everything Carter asked of her. She terminated the affair. She tells him her whereabouts honestly when they’re not together. She is affectionate and loving toward him. She agreed to participate in marital therapy.

Carter still doesn’t trust her. He says she’s doing all the right things, but she’s doing them for all the wrong reasons. Carter is convinced that Cynthia really loves the other man and he’s just part of a package she wants. He says, "she doesn’t really love me".

Cynthia is beside herself. She doesn’t know what more she can do to convince Carter she does love him, she’s sorry and it won’t happen again. Cynthia considers her past irresponsible and immature behavior as something that had nothing to do with Carter and how she feels about him, just her own flaw of character, something she has corrected.

Carter’s feelings have been hurt badly. He still loves Cynthia and he wants the marriage to continue, but things will never be the same between them. They’ve lost some of their naivetÈ. They’ll have to live with the fact that the motives that drive our behaviors are more likely to be mixed and puzzling than they are to be simple and clear.

    —M. LaCourt