Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Avoidance motivation

Avoidance motivation:
Why do we avoid tasks and how does this affect us?



Why do we avoid tasks? For numerous reasons. Avoidance motivation is a part of human nature - we learn to avoid negative stimuli on psychological, physiological, and social rationales. It is advantageous in particularly threatening situations, but can also be deleterious when it comes to the point of avoiding tasks that require completion.

Personality, risk perception, and procrastination result in the avoidance of negative stimuli. Relevant theories on avoidance motivation are discussed below; achievement-goal theory, appraisal-anxiety-avoidance theory, and self-regulation theory.

Ways to counteract excessive avoidance and reduce it’s detrimental effect are shown through cognitive self-regulation (for procrastination) and avoidance-motive-specific psychotherapy for patients with psychopathological disorders.

Child avoiding something scary (aversive stimulus)





Motivation is the process that gives behaviour energy and a direction to exercise towards. It is the energy that enthuses the individual to move in whatever direction is beneficial; governed by psychological, physiological, and social needs (Elliot, 2006).



Avoidance is the act of staying away from or preventing a possible negative stimuli (objects or events; Elliot, 2006). Avoidance is a common part of everyday life: avoiding the traffic rush by traveling earlier; preventing burning your feet on hot concrete by donning shoes, procrastinating instead of completing boring assignments, or spending lots of time on your assignment to avoid a low mark. Even though avoidance is helpful in risk perception, it is also inconvenient when it disrupts tasks due to procrastination, and when the avoidance is too strong it can be a risk factor for- or facilitate- many psychopathological disorders (Holtforth, Grawe, & Castonguay, 2006).

Along with this useful phenomenon comes it’s counter part, approach, which is the act of moving towards or aspiring a possible positive stimuli (Elliot, 2006). Likewise with avoidance, an approach attitude is a common part of everyday life, leading you to actively head in the direction of multiple ambitions.

In regards to motivation, the avoidance and approach phenomena are entitled approach-avoidance motivation - the physiological, psychological, and social framework that governs behaviour (Elliot, 2006).


As one of the basic subcategories of personality psychology, approach and avoidance motivation have been distinguished as complete opposites (although, there are slight variations of definition in different studies; Braverman & Frost, 2012). Avoidance motivation describes those who are largely driven by the desire to avoid distressing problems and undesirable outcomes (a prevention focus; Braverman & Frost, 2012). Avoidance motivation is traditionally connected to concepts such as aversion, punishment, and threat (Elliot, Eder, & Harmon-Jones, 2013). It is typically interpreted as the energisation of behaviour - directing one’s behaviour away from a negative stimuli (Elliot, 2006).

Avoidance motivation is associated with Negative Affectivity (NA) - a negative reaction to daily events (Ahmad & Rana, 2012). The fear of failure displayed by avoidance motivation is commonly generalised to the category of introverts - i.e. introverts have a more negative reaction to stressful situations and therefore avoidance is a common occurrence (Ahmad & Rana, 2012).


Approach motivation describes those who are largely driven by the desire to achieve their aspirations and desirable outcomes (a promotion focus; Braverman & Frost, 2012). Approach motivation is traditionally connected to concepts such as reward, incentive, and appetition (Elliot et. al., 2013). It is typically interpreted as the energisation of behaviour - directing one’s behaviour towards a positive stimulus (Elliot, 2006).

Approach motivation is associated with Positive Affectivity (PA) - pleasurable engagement and passionately active (Ahmad & Rana, 2012). The hope for success displayed by approach motivation is commonly generalised to the category of extraverts - i.e. extraverts are influenced less by negative affectivity and stressful situations (than introverts; Ahmad & Rana, 2012).



The approach-avoidance motivation is over 2,000 years old, first appearing in the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus’ writing (460-370 B.C.E.; Elliot, 2006). Its original definition was that human action was guided by the immediate pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain (Elliot, 2006). Jeremy Bentham (eighteenth century British philosopher) pathed the way for future progress after he postulated that a psychological gratification determined how we ought to behave as well as how we actually do (Elliot, 2006).

In 1890 William James then expanded the model into using pleasure as a reinforcer of behaviour and pain as an inhibitor, and Freud (1915) labelled the approach-avoidance model as the basic motivational drive that underlies all psychodynamic activity (Elliot, 2006). In the 1990’s, the two domains were labelled strongly intertwined, and the approach-avoidance model once again peaked in the psychological field (Elliot, 2006). It has been thus far defined and articulated through many constructs by various researchers over the latest years. One thing is unanimous: that the approach-avoidance model is now considered as fundamental and basic within motivational analyses (Elliot, 2006).

Why do we avoid tasks?

Avoidance towards Zombies as they are perceived as a risk

Risk perception


As mentioned perviously, avoidance motivation reacts towards negative issues, such as risks. Risk perception (risk-related information processing), is predominantly viewed as an imperative cognitive activity (Leikas, Lindeman, Roininen, & Lahteenmaki, 2009). Without risk perception, there would be nothing preventing us from engaging in a dangerous situation, which could lead to mortality. Risk perception is a survival instinct - without which, a species would not survive. Avoidance motivation responds to threatening stimuli, leading to anxiety and withdrawal behaviour (Leikas et. al., 2009). Avoidance sensitivity varies among individuals; a higher trait avoidance would mean they become more nervous and anxious when encountering a negative event (Leikas et. al., 2009). However, if sensitivity is too high, it can be detrimental. This is the case in many mental disorders, a prime example being depressive disorder.

Despite the predictability trait avoidance motivation produces on reactions towards negative events, the correlation between trait avoidance motivation and risk perceptions seems weak (Leikas et. al., 2009). However, state (momentary avoidance orientation) and trait avoidance motivation both raise an individuals risk perception to a similar state (Leikas et. al., 2009). This follows Leikas et. al.’s (2009) idea that goals within the avoidance process are considered necessities. The avoidance process is therefore proposed to function on an on-off principle, as opposed to synergistically.


In a situation where we detect a risk to ourselves (whether it be minimal or life threatening) anxiety and stress take over (Leikas et. al., 2009). The fight or flight response is a well-known expression: do you approach and fight, or take flight and avoid? A higher heart rate and blood pressure, and sweating occur - and not necessarily as the danger occurs, but beforehand. These physiological responses and anxiety builds with the anticipation of danger, leading you to avoid the negative outcome (Leikas et. al., 2009).



Procrastination is a trait or behaviour disposition to postpone or delay, and consequently avoid the performing of a task or decision making (Milgram & Tenne, 2000). Milgram and Tenne (2000) focused on decisional procrastination and task avoidant procrastination. Decisional procrastination is the inability to make timely decisions of either a minor or major nature. Task avoidant procrastination is when the individual postpones things across academic assignments and non-academic life routines.

Fear of failure


Fear of Failure (Atychiphobia) is when one avoids situations in which their ability or competence will be judged - where the fear of failure is paramount (Bartels, Magun-Jackson, & Ryan, 2010). A fear of failure is a great ordeal of anxiety, stress, and a sense of shame in the face of failure. It’s characterised as dispositional - a relatively stable motive. Bartels et. al. (2010) associated the development of fear of failure to certain attachment styles: a secure attachment style was synonymous with a need for achievement, and an anxious attachment style synonymous with a fear of failure. Individuals with a fear of failure are too anxious about a possible bad outcome, and are not willing to risk the possible failure, and so avoid the task (Bartels et. al., 2010). Bartels et. al. also notes that the threat of love withdrawal as a response to failure has a positive correlation to the development of the fear of failure motive, as these dispositional motives are socialised in early childhood (2010).

Contrary, the Need for Achievement is the demonstration of one’s competence (e.g. academic competence), and is affiliated with persistence, a penchant for challenges, and upon success experience happiness and pride (Bartels et. al., 2010). For achievement-oriented individuals, the anticipation of success is the locus of psychic energy, while failure is the locus for avoidance-oriented individuals.

See also Fear of Failure

Learned Helplessness


Learned helplessness is when an individual becomes passive in a situation they believe is unavoidable - when the outcome seems independent of any effort they put forth (Maier & Seligman, 1976). This can occur when an individual has a history of failing at tasks - they start to believe that their attempts always lead to failure, and so therefore avoid the task altogether. This leads to the self-fulfilling prophecy: they believe their attempts will fail, and so avoid the task completely which leads to certain failure (Maier & Seligman, 1976).



The Revised NEO Personality Inventory (Costa & McCrae, 1992) is a measurement of five factors (traits): neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Numerous studies have found an inverse relationship between conscientiousness and task avoidant procrastination (Milgram & Tenne, 2000). A positive correlation was found between both decisional and task avoidant procrastination and neuroticism (Milgram & Tenne, 2000). Conscientiousness is predominantly connected to approach motivation and neuroticism to avoidance motivation.

Personality types can have an affect on your approach-avoidance motivation - if you are more extraverted you are more approach-oriented, or if you are more introverted you are more avoidance-oriented (Milgram & Tenne, 2000). However, there are many aspects that contribute towards this, and a personality generalisation is not a definite assessment.



Appraisal-anxiety-avoidance theory


Lazarus and Folkman (1984) created a modified model in the field of stress and coping - the precipice of avoidance. The appraisal-anxiety-avoidance theory is based on the cognitive appraisal of stressors and their parameters (i.e. threatening elements that we aim to avoid), and the corresponding resources accessible to cope with the stressor (Milgram & Tenne, 2000). The individual assesses whether the situation or task poses a threat, and/or whether making a certain decision would pose a threat. If their resources to cope with the stressor feel to be inadequate, anxiety is evoked, which is why they turn to avoidance to escape the anxiety-provoking task or decision for the immediate future (Milgram & Tenne, 2000). This act of avoidance then becomes negatively reinforced as a result of the anxiety-reducing outcome (Milgram & Tenne, 2000).

Self-regulation theory


The self-regulation theory (self-discrepancy theory), is where individuals are motivated to find consistency between self-perceptions (Higgins, 1997). Individuals with a promotion focus are driven by approach motivation, and prevention focus driven by avoidance motivation (Braverman & Frost, 2012). Along with the effort of regulation, time management (i.e. the planning and monitoring of tasks) is an effective technique that is lower in avoidance-oriented individuals. The self-monitoring feedback is differentiated into two types:

  • Current performance and the undesired initial state: avoidance motivated individuals are encouraged when they compare their current progress state to the undesired initial state, as this comparison reveals they have made some headway in the task (Braverman & Frost, 2012). Any headway is a positive step for avoidance-oriented individuals, as Victor Kiam once said “Even if you’re falling on your face, you’re still moving forward”.
  • Current performance and future goal: approach-motivated individuals are motivated to achieve the future goal (Braverman & Frost, 2012). Seeing the progress towards their desired goal is more encouraging than looking at what they have already achieved, as their centre of attention is focused on promotion (Braverman & Frost, 2012).

Achievement-goal theory


Achievement goal theory is the integration of mastery goals (intrinsic aspects are valued) and performance goals (outcome is valued; Van Nuland, Dusseldorp, Martens, & Boekaerts, 2010). This combination of goals with avoidance-oriented individuals brought about different avoidance rationales. Students of a performance avoidance orientation were motivated to avoid a low performance, whilst students of a mastery avoidance orientation attempt to master new material but worried about the competency of their personal skills (self-esteem; Van Nuland et. al., 2010).

Brain processes


Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex


The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) is significant in the pursuing of goals, with different areas specific to approach and avoidance motivation, respectively (Spielberg et. al., 2012). The avoidance motivational system is the network supporting the orientation towards potential aversive outcomes, and occurs in the right DLPFC. Interestingly, the left DLPFC was found to be associated with both approach and avoidance temperaments (Spielberg et. al., 2012). The network of DLPFC associated with avoidance motivation temperaments involves:

  • Orbitofrontal cortex (OFC): involved in the maintenance of current and expected motivational value of a stimulus (such as tasks or decisions; Spielberg et. al., 2012). This information is vital when preserving goals and protecting against distraction. The medial/lateral hemispheric organisations of the OFC are integrated: bilateral medial and right lateral OFC correspond with pleasant emotional experience (approach), and the left middle and left lateral OFC correspond with unpleasant emotional experience (avoidance; Spielberg et. al., 2012).
Right-hand approach, left-hand avoidance
  • Anterior cingulate cortex (ACC): involved in assessing actions and encoding the predicted value of the outcomes. The ACC is necessary for creating beneficial strategies for the goal objectives, and when they should be adjusted (Spielberg et. al., 2012).
  • Amygdala: identifies motivationally salient stimuli, and determines which is of higher importance; identifying unpleasantly valenced stimuli as well as pleasantly valenced stimuli (Spielberg et. al., 2012).
  • Basal Ganglia (BG): an important process that the BG carries out (as well as anticipating rewarding stimuli and reinforcing actions) is the integration of motivational information from multiple areas (Spielberg et. al., 2012). This ongoing process of integration in particular brain areas enables the appropriate influencing of behaviour (Spielberg et. al., 2012).


Sword and shield hypothesis

Approach actions are generally executed with the dominant hand, while avoidance actions are generally performed with the non-dominant hand (Brookshire & Casasanto, 2012). Centuries ago, sword fighters wielded their sword in their dominant (usually right) hand when approaching the enemy, and raised their shield with their non-dominant (usually left) hand to avoid an attack (Brookshire & Casasanto, 2012). In more everyday actions, this might mean you pick up a piece of fruit that you want to eat in your right hand, and shade your eyes from the sun with your left.

This sword and shield pattern is also reflected in hemispheric organisation. With regards to motivation in the human brain, the right hemisphere corresponds with avoidance emotions (left hand activities), and the left hemisphere corresponds with approach emotions (right hand activities; Brookshire & Casasanto, 2012; Flaherty, 2011). This hemispheric laterality of approach-avoidance motivation works in reverse for left-handed individuals.

How does avoiding tasks affect us?


Avoiding tasks and decisions affect us in a variety of ways, from saving us from a dangerous activity, to preventing us from completing an assignment until the last minute. Avoidance can be harmful to individuals with a psychopathological disorder, or merely be an irritation when you find yourself procrastinating instead of cleaning. Avoiding a distressing problem or undesirable outcome is a part of human nature; a survival instinct that has brought us this far. However, it is also human nature to find balance and consistency between perceptions (self-regulation theory) - to possess both approach and avoidance motivations. The positives and negatives of avoidance motivation are compiled below:


  • Avoidance of risky situations: dangerous situations that could lead to mortality evoke very strong avoidance behaviour. Risk perception is a survival instinct - without it, there would be no filtering of what we should and shouldn’t do with regards to danger. It’s a necessary step for evolution. Avoiding risking situations means you can make the choice to take a taxi instead of driving intoxicated, to walk in a group instead of isolated at night time, or to drive beneath the speed limit when on icy roads.
  • Avoidance sometimes facilitates effort: when an undesirable outcome is possible, you may put more effort into the task to avoid this result. For example, if your company is laying off subsidiary employees at the end of the week, you may endeavor to finish your project with a higher level of quality than usual.


  • Procrastination: the postponing and consequent avoidance of performing a task or making a decision (decisional and task avoidant procrastination). Task avoidant procrastination is a complication for most students e.g. leaving assignments until the last minute. Decisional procrastination takes away a lot of time and can be largely exhausting.
  • Avoidance due to fear of failure: a great ordeal of anxiety and stress about a possible failure and so avoid the task completely. Fear of failure can sometimes be so debilitating that their failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy due to undisciplined avoidance. Fear-driven avoidance is also a hindrance to creativity (Flaherty, 2011).
  • Avoidance can limit future groundwork: as referenced in the self-regulation theory, avoidance-orientated individuals utilise the self-monitoring feedback between current performance and the undesired initial state. Even though this comparison is encouraging to the individual, it reveals how little of the future they think about.

How to combat avoidance


Counteracting Educational Avoidance


One aspect of avoidance, the fear of failure, is negatively associated with the learning strategies of cognitive self-regulation. Congruent with the self-regulation theory, Bartels et. al. (2010) recognises the specific relationship of the learning strategies; elaboration, rehearsal, organisation, and critical thinking and their influence on student education. Avoidance motivation has been associated with disorganised studying and surface processing; indicating that these individuals do not utilise their self-regulated learning strategies to their advantage (Bartels et. al., 2010). For individuals who suffer excessively from procrastination and a lack of persistence, interventions can change their behaviour and work to reduce avoidance responses. Intervention programs not only reduce the adoption of maladaptive objectives, but also lessen self-regulated learning failure in education (Bartels et. al., 2010).

Organisational strategy - Group study

For study purposes, Bartels et. al. (2010) supports the following practices that intervene education avoidance behaviours (highest efficacy to lowest): organisation and critical thinking, elaboration, and rehearsal.

  • Organisation and critical thinking: involves the manipulation of study material (e.g. diagrams; Bartels et. al., 2010). This strategy works to facilitate a deeper understanding in applying previously learned knowledge in unfamiliar situations, allowing the individual to compare different ideas and circumstances. Organisation and critical thinking is highly correlated to approach goals, so in intervening the procrastination/lack of persistence in avoidant-oriented individuals this process will alter their educational avoidance habits (Bartels et. al., 2010).
  • Elaboration: a paraphrasing or summarising of material leading to an integration of new information and existing knowledge (Bartels et. al., 2010). This process aims to enrich knowledge through simple study, bringing about a positive change in concentration and self-application (Bartels et. al., 2010).
  • Rehearsal: involves outlining and out loud rehearsal of information. This process is used to capture the individual’s attention and then retain the rehearsed information for a short period (Bartels et. al., 2010). Rehearsal is the least efficient process of altering avoidance motivation as it is minimally engaging (in comparison to the above cognitive strategies), as well as unsuitable for complex tasks (Bartels et. al., 2010).

Psychotherapy: reducing avoidance motivation


Despite the negative impact of excessive avoidance habits on psychological functioning in psychopathological disorders, not a lot of empirical research is focused on reducing avoidance motivation using psychotherapy. However, Holtforth (2008) looked into the effect of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) on avoidance motivation in psychotherapy outpatients - participants with anxiety and depressive disorders. Psychotherapies that incorporated interventions that specifically target motive change result in a better outcome for high avoidance-oriented individuals than interventions that omit motive change (Holtforth, 2008). The combination of CBT and process-experiential interventions successfully reduced avoidance motivation in high avoidance-orientated individuals via the restructuring of their primary appraisal of the threatening situations.

Notably, patients who reduced their avoidance motivation correlated with exhibiting a better therapy outcome. The methodology, while effective for both depressive and anxiety disorders, was most advantageous in lessening avoidance motivation and a better therapy outcome in depressive disorder patients. CBT and process-experiential interventions are therefore a good method to implement when trying to reduce the hardships and functionality of psychopathological disorders such as depressive and anxiety disorders.



Avoidance motivation is a natural instinct that keeps us away from harmful stimuli as well as boring assignments. It can be an irritation when trying to complete important tasks or decisions, and for predominantly avoidance-oriented individuals it can be a risk factor for- or facilitate- many psychopathological disorders. Closely intertwined with approach motivation, the two are a necessity for everyday life, governed by psychological, physiological, and social needs. To keep the balance from leaning towards excessive avoidance behaviours, studying and organisational techniques along with therapy can help restructure activity priorities and reduce avoidance.

Test your knowledge


1 Avoidance is a common part of everyday life

b) False

2 Why do we avoid tasks/activities?

a) Fear of Failure
b) Short attention span
c) Danger is detected
d) a and c

3 Self-monitoring feedback between current performance and the undesired initial state occurs in what type of individuals:

a) Avoidance-oriented
b) Approach-oriented

4 With reference to the sword and shield hypothesis, which of the following is correct?

a) You eat a delicious cookie with your left hand
b) You block a punch in a fight with your left hand
c) You shade your eyes from the hot sun with your right hand

5 Which of the following effectively assist in reducing your avoidance of learning?

a) Time-management and periodic breaks
b) Organisation and critical thinking
c) Rehearsal of material while listening to relaxing music

See also


Fear of Failure

Fear of success

Goal setting


Experiential Avoidance

Transactional model of stress and coping


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