What is approach-avoidance conflict?

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In this blog we will discuss what Approach-Avoidance Conflict is. 

We will also briefly look into how this concept was developed, the dynamics of Approach-Avoidance Conflict, and how it manifests across individual human beings. 

What is approach-avoidance conflict?

According to the American Psychological association, Approach-avoidance conflict refers to.

“…a situation involving a single goal or option that has both desirable and undesirable aspects or consequences. The closer an individual comes to the goal, the greater the anxiety, but withdrawal from the goal then increases the desire (American Psychological Association)

When we take a closer look into this definition, it refers to a decision or behaviours directed towards attaining a goal that results with both attainment of the desirable goal as well as undesirable consequences that come along with this decision or behaviours. 

This conflict arises when the individual makes strides towards their goal which causes anxiety related to the negative consequences but if they choose to withdraw the more they are motivated or the more they desire their goals. 

It involves both motivation to approach and avoid the decision or behaviours and this conflict arises when the goal of an individual motivates them both to avoid and approach the decision or goal attainment behaviours. 

This particular conflict involves both positive and negative aspects that are present as part of the goal and this leads to approach and avoidance reactions at the same time. 

The concept was introduced by Kurt Lewin and referred to this concept as two competing positive and negative forces that work parallelly and simultaneously. 

For example, A person wants to eat cake (this is the positive force that motivates them to approach) but does not want to gain weight (this is the negative force and motivates avoidance).

If the person starts eating the cake they develop an anxiety related to weight gain however if they avoid the cake, the more they want to eat it. What is happening here is an approach-avoidance conflict that has to be solved. 

How was the Approach Avoidance Conflict Conceptualised?

The concept of the Approach-Avoidance Conflict has its roots in the classical distinction of Approach and avoidance motivation was first identified and explored by Greek Philosophers sy as Democritus, 460–370B.C., and Aristippus, 435–356 B.C. (Ehrlich, Christian & Fasbender, Ulrike, 2017)

These philosophers introduced the concept of how human beings pursue pleasure and the avoidance of pain- considering these two motivations as the principles that guide human behaviour. 

In more recent years, this motivation is defined as a function of valence by Kurt Lewin, where Approach motivation occurs when there is a desirable goal or event and avoidance motivation is directed away from an undesirable goal or event. (Ehrlich, Christian & Fasbender, Ulrike, 2017)

According to Lewin, this conflict is considered to be a conflict between two competing positive and negative forces that work parallelly and simultaneously (Lewin, 1935). 

For example, a person might be awarded a higher position in the company with a better salary however, they will have to work for longer hours and across a wider field. 

So here, the promotion of this individual becomes an event that is desirable and undesirable at the same time. As a result, the person is likely to experience a conflict whether to move towards the promotion or away from it.

Kurt Lewin and researchers that followed also expanded the types of conflicts present. These include:

  • Approach-Approach conflict where the person is faced with the dilemma of having two desirable goals. For example, They have tickets to two shows and they want to attend both. 
  • Avoidance-avoidance conflict where the person is faced with two punishing forces; for example, the person is faced with either doing one boring assignment or doing house chores. 

What are the factors that influence the Approach Avoidance Conflict?

According to Kurt Lewin, there are three main factors that influence the dynamics of an Approach-Avoidance Conflict. These include:

Magnitude of Valence

Regarding this particular factor- Magnitude of Valence refers to when the results of the approaching valence; ie the reward or the positive outcome is much stronger and greater than what is motivating the individual towards avoidance. 

This means that the desirable event is strong enough in magnitude that it counterbalances the undesirable that leads to avoidance tendencies. 

For example, in the case of the employee with the promotion opportunity; the paycheck and the benefits from the promotion is far greater in magnitude and value compared to a few less hours of free time. 

the way in which an approach-avoidance conflict is solved also depends on the state of tension which is created by the two conflicting needs (e.g., being hungry vs. wanting to lose weight)

State of Tension

Another factor is the state of tension and dilemma that is created by the conflicting needs. For example, if the employee is faced with the struggle of meeting ends meet after their spouse loses their job- it is more likely that they will approach the promotion. 

Or on the contrary, if the employee is a new parent and thinks spending time with their child is important, they might avoid the promotion. 

Psychological Distance

When we talk about psychological distance, this factor was identified by Neal Miller who studied the behaviour of rats that were made to choose between different levels of food rewards and electric shock.

The results of Miller’s experiments as well as that of other researchers found that desirable forces and undesirable forces of approach and avoidance tendencies are not stable.

Rather the level of desirability and undesirability changes according to the closeness or the distance from the person to the event. Researchers found that as the individual gets closer to the conflict inducing eent, the more they want to avoid it but it appears more desirable when considered from a distance. 

For example, the employee might want the promotion however as they come closer to the due date as to when they have to get back to their boss about their decision, they might want to avoid it more. 

Lewin also added that from a distance, the positive valence is far greater but as one gets closer, the negative valence or undesirable balance becomes more in magistude. 

How can one resolve the Approach-Avoidance Conflict?

According to Lewin, when the three factors- tension, valence, and distance are equally strong, the conflict is not easy to solve and this conflict remains present for a long time. 

One possible solution to the conflict is to change the valence of the goal aspects. For example, one can begin to tell one’s self about the negative aspects of the cake they want to eat or one can focus on how important it is for them to lose weight by highlighting positive aspects about it. . 

Individual Differences in Approach andAvoidance Tendencies

According to researchers Ehrlich, Christian & Fasbender, the extent to which a situation might lead people to act on their approach or avoidance tendencies is influenced either by their personality and individual differences. 

These researchers noted that when we consider the Big FIve Personality traits,i.e., neuroticism, extraversion, openness to expe-rience, conscientiousness, and agreeableness); traits like  extraversion have been linked to approach oriented goals. 

Meaning that if the individual has traits like being assertive, sociable, enthusiastic- they are more inclined to have a stronger magnitude of approaching tendencies. 

On the other hand, they speculated that Neuroticism where the individual appears to be emotionally unstable, anxious, and moody are more inclined to have stronger avoidance tendencies. 

Based on this, they made an assumption that extroverts are more likely to be reward oriented and are responsive to the desirable aspects of the conflict leading them to approach the situation whereas people who are neurotic and anxious are more likely to respond to the potential that something negative will happen. 

Ehrlich, Christian & Fasbender also mentioned that recent research has shown that people are both equally extrovert and neurotic, both approach and avoidance tendies will be activated and this will result in difficulty in their choice to respond to stimuli- meaning that there will be more anxiety related to indecisiveness. 

This is because it is impossible to approach and avoid the stimulus at the same time because the tendencies of approach and avoidance are incompatible with each other leading to longer sustaining conflicts that are more difficult to resolve by the individual. 

Conclusion

In this blog we have discussed what Approach-Avoidance Conflict is. 

We have also briefly looked into how this concept was developed, the dynamics of Approach-Avoidance Conflict, and how it manifests across individual human beings. 

FAQ related to What is approach-avoidance conflict?

What are examples of approach-avoidance?

For example, in the case of the employee with the promotion opportunity; the paycheck and the benefits from the promotion is far greater in magnitude and value compared to a few less hours of free time. 

What is approach-avoidance?

Approach-avoidance refers to a decision or behaviours directed towards attaining a goal that results with both attainment of the desirable goal as well as undesirable consequences that come along with this decision or behaviours. 

What is approach-avoidance relationship?

Approach-avoidance relationship refers to the conflict that arises when the individual makes strides towards their goal which causes anxiety related to the negative consequences but if they choose to withdraw the more they are motivated or the more they desire their goals. 

When we take a closer look into this definition, it refers to a decision or behaviours directed towards attaining a goal that results with both attainment of the desirable goal as well as undesirable consequences that come along with this decision or behaviours. 

It involves both motivation to approach and avoid the decision or behaviours and this conflict arises when the goal of an individual motivates them both to avoid and approach the decision or goal attainment behaviours. 

What is approach vs avoidance culture?

Approach versus Avoidance culture refers to the tendencies of human beings to pursue pleasure or positive events and the avoidance of pain or negative events- considering these two motivations as the principles that guide human behaviour. 

References

Approach-avoidance conflict. APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved on 9th March 2022. https://dictionary.apa.org/approach-avoidance-conflict

Ehrlich, Christian & Fasbender, Ulrike. (2017). Approach-Avoidance Conflict.  Encyclopaedia of Personality and Individual Differences (pp.1-7) SpringerEditors: V. Zeigler-Hill, T. Shackelford

Lewin, K. (1935). A dynamic theory of personality.New York: McGraw-Hill.

Miller, N. E. (1944). Experimental studies of conflict. InJ. M. Hunt (Ed.), Personality and the behaviour disor-ders (pp. 431–465). New York: Ronald.

Miller, N. E. (1959). Liberalisation of basic S-R concepts:Extensions to conflict behaviour, motivation, and social learning. In S. Koch (Ed.), Psychology: A study of science,General systemic formulations, learning,and special processes (Vol. 2, pp. 196–292).New York: McGraw-Hill

Forster, J., Higgins, E. T., & Idson, L. C. (1998). Approach and avoidance strength during goal attainment: Regulatory focus and the “goal looms larger” effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 1115-1131.

Weiner, B. (1980). Human motivation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum

Approach-Avoidance Conflict. Psychology. Retrieved on 9th March 2022. http://psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/control/approach-avoidance-conflict/

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