Motivation and emotion/Book/2022/Approach motivation

Approach motivation:
What is approach motivation and how does it lead to behaviour?

Overview edit

Case study: Selene is studying psychology and finds most of her units fascinating. She takes a class about personality and is completely engaged, as she has been interested in the subject long before she started studying psychology formally. Her first assignment is an essay, with a range of specific topics for her to choose from. She feels an urge to start working on it as soon as her lecturer describes it in the first lecture. Her desire to engage with the task is an example of the experience of approach motivation.

Figure 1. People often desire travel and are motivated to explore the world. Seeing sights such as the Great Wall of China is an example of approach motivation.

What motivates people's behaviour? What makes people want to engage with situations; to take risks, try new things? What makes someone recognise and value all that can come from seeking something out? Approach motivation is a broad, pervasive type of motivation that can explain these experiences. It underlies evolution, and along with avoidance motivation, ensures that humans not only avoid threat of harm, but seek out their needs and even further than that, flourish. Understanding the concept of approach motivation can provide greater insight into what informs and guides behaviour. Shifting situations to support and facilitate this kind of motivation can help people to engage with their lives more proactively, and so may result in greater courage, personal growth, and joy. There are many psychological theories that seek to explain the nuances of motivation; this chapter outlines the concept of approach motivation and how it directs behaviour, as well as how it may be applied practically.

Focus questions:

  • What is approach motivation?
  • What theories and perspectives explain approach motivation?
  • How does it lead to behaviour?
  • How might we apply this concept?

What is approach motivation? edit

Figure 2. An image of a woman deep in thought. She may even be wondering what approach motivation is!

In order to answer this question effectively, it is sensible to discuss it in its traditional and usual context - opposed to avoidance motivation. From there a better understanding of approach motivation may be achieved. This shared focus allows for a fuller picture to be painted. This section goes through these elements individually to create a comprehensive impression of these concepts as they are defined psychologically.

Approach motivation edit

Lewin (1935) defined approach motivation as, "the energisation of behaviour by, or the direction of behaviour toward, positive [desired] stimuli (objects, events, possibilities)” (as cited in Monni et al., 2020, p. 2). However, this classic definition has been debated and alternatives proposed, based on research supporting the idea that, "approach motivation may also be evoked by negative stimuli; approach motivation may be experienced as a negative affective state; and that stimuli are unnecessary to evoke approach motivation" (Harmon-Jones et al., 2013, p. 292). They offer, quite concisely, "the impulse to move toward", as a more accurate definition. This chapter assumes the more modern definition of approach motivation. Approach motivation is strongly associated with appetition, reward, and incentive (Elliot et al., 2013).

The most notable example of approach motivation being provoked by negative stimuli is evident in anger. Anger serves to defend, correct an injustice, or overcome a perceived obstacle (Harmon-Jones et al., 2013). Two kinds of anger are pertinent to approach (and avoidance) motivation: offensive and defensive anger (Harmon-Jones et al., 2013). Offensive anger is associated with approach motivation, as it elicits the desire to attack the subject of their wrath.

An intuitive example of approach motivation being experienced as a negative emotional state can be seen in loneliness and the desire for connectedness socially. When experienced mildly, one feels positively and looks forward to seeing loved ones and interacting with others. However, when experienced at an extreme, the feeling is extremely unpleasant. One feels desperately lonely and isolated, craving contact the way one craves food or water after going a long period without. Most can relate to this experience, with lockdowns, border closures, and social distancing in place during peaks in the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Guilt is another example of an unpleasant emotion that correlates with approach motivation - when one feels guilty and desires to make amends, that is approach motivation in action. Cognitive dissonance is a third; believing one thing to be true about oneself and then behaving in a contradictory way creates a discomfort referred to as cognitive dissonance. The desire to alleviate this distress is yet another situation in which approach motivation is experienced unpleasantly.

A study by Price and Harmon-Jones (2010) illustrates the non-essentiality of stimuli for the generation of approach motivation. They had participants either lean back in their seat, sit upright, or lean forward while an EEG (Electroencephalogram) recorded their brain activity for one minute. The results showed more activity in the brain region associated with approach motivation in those leaning forward, and less activity in those leaning backward, with those sitting upright measuring in between. Gable and Dreisbach (2021) reiterate this point, asserting that approach motivation can be elicited by internal states or traits.

Avoidance motivation edit

Much of the literature on approach motivation also addresses avoidance motivation. The earlier definition by Lewin (1935) regards avoidance motivation as, "the energisation of behaviour by, or the direction of behaviour away from, negative [undesired] stimuli (objects, events, possibilities)” (as cited in Monni et al., 2020, p. 2). Avoidance motivation may correlate with a number of emotions, including anxiety, fear, disgust, and defensive anger. Defensive anger evokes the desire to protect oneself by fleeing and avoiding the cause of their anger (Harmon-Jones et al., 2013). Similarly, aversion, punishment, and threat are all concepts closely tied to avoidance motivation (Elliot et al., 2013). Regardless of people's awareness of approach and avoidance as motivational forces, these motivations form the basis of virtually all actions taken by human and non-human animals. They are a reason humans as a species have not only survived, but thrived (Elliot et al., 2013).

The history of the approach-avoidance distinction:

The dichotomy of approach and avoidance orientations goes back more than 2000 years, to the ancient Greeks and their ethical perspectives on the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain (Elliot, 2006). Elliot (2006) explains and explores this with more specificity and depth, and a link to a YouTube video on this topic can be found in the external links section at the bottom of the page.

Test yourself! edit

1 Approach motivation is best defined as:

The impulse to move toward.
The energization of behaviour by, or the direction of behaviour toward, positive stimuli.

2 Emotions most associated with avoidance motivation are:

Worry, intimidation, and contempt.
Disgust, fear, and sadness.

How does approach motivation lead to behaviour? edit

There is value in understanding how this desire to go towards things results in action being taken. Approach motivation does not always lead to approach behaviour, but it is often the case. Approach motivated behaviour is witnessed both in human and non-human animals. With greater relevance and brevity in mind, this question of how is best understood through psychological theory and human neurology.

Psychological theory edit

A good theory allows people to conceptualise and apply understanding of observable phenomena in useful ways. This section explores some relevant psychological theories and how they relate to the concept of approach motivation.

Achievement motivation theory/three needs theory edit

The achievement motivation theory (McClelland, 2005) states that motivations are learned, and their likelihood to affect behaviour differs between individuals. People develop different associations to the situations and stimuli they encounter. A challenge may evoke and be associated with positive feelings, which would result in that person having a strong desire (motivation) for achievement. Achievement was a common focus at the time in which the theory was originally developed (1950s-60s), and two more motivations were added some time later, resulting in achievement motivation theory evolving into and becoming known as the three needs theory.

The need for affiliation and power were added to the mix, with the same view that these motivations are learned, not inherent, and that the degree to which people are inclined towards each of the three needs varies between people. For example, if someone regularly experienced positive reinforcement after achievement growing up, they would likely associate achievement with positive feelings and social reward. This would result in the development of a stronger achievement motivation than that of someone who often failed to achieve throughout their life and thus suffered the negative consequences of that failure. The first person would experience the desire to go toward situations they perceive as an opportunity to achieve whereas, in the same situation, the person who associates achievement with imminent failure would not.

Broaden-and-build theory edit

Figure 3. A small child smiling through a play structure, radiating joy.

Positive emotions and similar experiences (sensory pleasure, overall positive mood) are closely connected to approach motivation, to the point of being frequently confounded (Fredrickson & Fowler, 2001; Gable & Dreisbach, 2021; Elliot et al., 2013). However, the link is evident, and well illustrated by the broaden-and-build theory (Fredrickson, 1998). This theory posits that pleasant feelings, "broaden one's awareness and encourage novel, exploratory thoughts and actions. Over time, this broadened behavioral repertoire builds useful skills and psychological resources" (Broaden-and-build, Wikipedia, 2021). It is also recognised that certain positive emotions are less energising and thus not particularly approach motivating, as is apparent in serenity and contentment (Fredrickson & Fowler, 2001; Gable & Dreisbach, 2021). The reverse is true for a variety of other pleasurable feelings, such as enthusiasm or interest, which carry much energy and approach motivation. The broaden-and-build theory maintains that emotions such as love, joy, and pride inspire people to play, create and explore, overall leading to further engagement with physical, social, and intellectual environments. This perspective is useful for conceptualising approach motivation as it not only explains this connection and experience between positive feelings and the desire to go toward, but has clear and practical implications. People can create more approach motivation in their lives by committing time regularly to activities that produce good feelings.

Regulatory focus theory edit

The regulatory focus theory (Higgins, 1987, as cited in Monni et al., 2020) maintains that people strive to achieve end states - either their "ideal-self" or "ought-self" (ought as in "ought to", meaning "should"). This differentiates their framing of their goals either as personal aspirations and hopes, or as obligations and responsibilities. To achieve this, people use different self-regulation strategies, including approach or avoidance oriented ones. There are systemic, strategic, and tactical levels to these self-regulation strategies. The systemic level's processes are either promotion-focused (for those working towards their ideal-self) or prevention-focused (for those working towards their ought-self). A promotion-focus refers to an individuals striving to change their circumstances and self to be better than it is. A prevention-focus refers to individuals seeking to ensure they do not allow their circumstances to worsen; they strive to maintain their current position, to meet all of their obligations. The strategic level details the difference in active plan; ideal-self people utilise eager approach strategies, where ought-self people make use of vigilant avoidance strategies. The tactical level identifies how each type consequently behaves, with the more approach motivated people using risky tactics and the avoidance motivated ones using conservative tactics.[factual?]

Reinforcement sensitivity theory edit

The reinforcement sensitivity theory (Gray & McNaughton, 2000, as cited in Harmon-Jones & Gable, 2018) asserts that there are multiple systems at play when it comes to approach and avoidance motivation and behaviour. They posit one system relating to approach motivation and two relating to avoidance. Their approach system is called the Behavioural Activation System (BAS) and is responsible for responding to reward and maintaining drive. Their first avoidance system manages responses to aversive stimuli, and is referred to as the Fight-Flight-Freeze System (FFFS). Their second avoidance system is named quite aptly, mirroring the approach system - it is the Behavioural Inhibition System (BIS) and serves to resolve goal conflicts.

Test yourself! edit

1 The regulatory focus theory suggests:

People develop greater physical and psychological resources by regularly experiencing positive emotions. It motivates them to engage with the world around them with curiosity, energy, and creativity.
People have many internal systems that work to help them adaptively respond to threatening stimuli, conflicting goals and potential reward.
People are motivated to fulfil an idea of who they could be - either a version of themselves that fulfils their personal ideals, or a version that embodies others' expectations of them. They use strategies to help them manage their behaviour in order to accomplish this.

2 Which of these statements aligns with the broaden-and-build theory?

I have worked hard to determine what I value personally and strive to live with integrity - in alignment with those values. I notice opportunities to live out my values and take them.
I really love my work, it brings me great joy and satisfaction. This gives me more energy to dedicate to other parts of my life and leaves me feeling more creative and playful overall.
I have always had an easy time socially; I have good friends that support and uplift me. In most situations, I look for ways to connect with others.

Physiological underpinnings edit

Figure 4. An image of the reward system and dopamine pathways in the brain.
Figure 5. A rotating animation of the human brain showing the left frontal lobe in red within a translucent skull.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in the brain's reward system, which is intricately tied to approach motivation. Dopamine is commonly associated with pleasure and reward, but it also plays a part in learning, memory and coordination. Much research supporting dopamine's involvement in reward and pleasure is seen through evidence that the stimulant drug cocaine stops the brain from reabsorbing dopamine, creating an excess of the neurotransmitter (Ikemoto et al., 2015).

Neurologically, some of the structures seen to be involved in approach motivation are the medial VTA-VS dopamine system (also known as the mesolimbic or reward pathway) and the midbrain raphe nuclei (Ikemoto, 2010; Ikemoto et al., 2015).

Research over the last few decades has consistently observed that more activity in the left frontal cortex is reflective of approach motivation and the emotions associated with it (Price & Harmon-Jones, 2011; Harmon-Jones & Gable, 2018; Kaack et al., 2020). In contrast, greater activity in the right frontal cortex is typically seen in avoidance and withdrawal related orientations and emotions, such as disgust, sadness, and fear, however results are inconclusive across the literature.

A recent study on the relationship between loneliness and peripheral nervous system (PNS) activity found higher resting activity in the PNS is associated with increased approach behaviour in people with greater levels of loneliness (Smith & Pollack, 2022).

Test yourself! edit

1 Activity in what area of the brain is most often associated with approach motivation?

The orbitofrontal cortex.
The left frontal cortex.
The right frontal cortex.
The amygdala.

2 What is dopamine commonly known as?

The love hormone.
The pleasure hormone.
The happy hormone.
The feel-good hormone.

How can this be applied? edit

As fascinating as these experiences, studies and theories are, finding ways to make use of it in daily life is the true value for most. This section will detail some ways in which knowledge of approach motivation may serve people practically.

Awareness edit

One way to apply approach motivation is by practicing awareness. By noticing when you are experiencing it, you make it more likely that you will resist the impulse. For instance, if someone who has nutritional goals recognises that they are craving junk food, they can recognise it as simply an impulse they can choose to ride out and think of a healthier alternative that still appeals.

Similarly, acknowledging that fear is the mind doing what it has evolved to do to protect itself provides people with options other than avoidance. They can train their mind out of assessing particular situations as threatening when they are not, and instead learn to approach them. By undergoing this mental training, with time they may find themselves naturally feeling motivated to approach these situations. An example of this could be someone who is particularly conflict avoidant. They may learn about approach and avoidance motivation and how it directs behaviour as well as the benefits of assertive communication and decide to start working on this, eventually handling moments of conflict with confidence.

This next point is slightly separate from approach motivation, but there is value in it. At times, approach behaviour can be used based on avoidance motivation (Elliot, 2006; Wimmer et al., 2018). This situation may occur when a person's fear of and desire to avoid failure (for example) leads to them engaging further with the situation they fear failing in. One might witness this in a person who is deeply afraid of public speaking pouring countless hours into perfecting and memorising their speech so that it goes as well as possible.

Addiction is one struggle that approach motivation is significant in. People ache for the sources of their addiction (food, gambling, drugs, sex) even when it fails to provide the gratification it once did (Harmon-Jones et al., 2013). The desire to seek out such vices is strong, even when there is no pleasure in it anymore due to drug tolerance. Having an awareness of the role motivation plays in addiction may help people be more compassionate towards those struggling, and caution them from risk-taking behaviour that may result in addiction.

Creating opportunity edit

Another way to apply the concept of approach motivation is by creating more opportunities to experience it. Take nutrition, for example. By making a point of noticing what healthy foods you most enjoy and deciding to always keep them around the house, you can increase the likelihood you will consume them. Keeping items that align with your goals and naturally appeal to you will make it much easier to stick with your intentions (Cheung et al., 2016). Especially if you also remove any unhealthy food items that tempt you from your home. You will be far more motivated to eat something you genuinely enjoy than something you dislike but recognise the health benefits of.

This idea can be applied to a wide variety of things, such as: making time to learn things you are sincerely curious about, prioritising positive and uplifting experiences as a way of living, or mentally reframing situations that typically evoke an avoidant response as opportunities to practice courage. Prioritising experiences that elicit joy is a recommendation highly aligned with the broaden-and-build theory. Someone may create more opportunities to experience approach motivation by making a point of dedicating time for play, connection, and any other activity that evokes good feelings.

Conclusion edit

Approach motivation is best defined as, "the impulse to move toward" and it leads to behaviour through (a) natural evolutionary processes that see that humans to meet their needs and (b) the neurotransmitter dopamine, reward pathways in the brain, and higher activity in the left frontal cortex. The theories and perspectives that help explain approach motivation are achievement goal theory, achievement motivation theory, broaden-and-build theory, and regulatory focus theory. It can be applied by practicing awareness (overriding fear and choosing courage/approach, riding out impulses and choosing options that appeal but better serve you) and creating opportunities to experience more approach motivation (e.g., finding ways to make goal behaviours fun and interesting - it will help people be more consistent in achieving their goals).

Share your thoughts

Use this survey to reflect on what you now know about approach motivation and speak your piece on the topic!

See also edit

References edit

Broaden-and-build. (2021). Wikipedia. Retrieved October 24, 2022, from

Cheung, T., Gillebaart, M., Kroese, F., & de Ridder, D. (2016). Self-Control Success Revealed: Greater Approach Motivation Towards Healthy versus Unhealthy Food. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 30(6), 846–853.

Elliot, A. J. (2006). The hierarchical model of approach-avoidance motivation. Motivation and Emotion, 30(2), 111–116.

Elliot, A. J., Eder, A. B., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2013). Approach–Avoidance Motivation and Emotion: Convergence and Divergence. Emotion Review, 5(3), 308–311.

Fredrickson, B. L. & Fowler, R. D. (2001). The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology: The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions. The American Psychologist, 56(3), 218–226.

Gable, P. A. & Dreisbach, G. (2021). Approach motivation and positive affect. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 39, 203–208.

Harmon‐Jones, E. & Gable, P. A. (2018). On the role of asymmetric frontal cortical activity in approach and withdrawal motivation: An updated review of the evidence. Psychophysiology, 55(1).

Harmon-Jones, E., Harmon-Jones, C., & Price, T. F. (2013). What is Approach Motivation? Emotion Review, 5(3), 291–295.

Ikemoto, S. (2010). Brain reward circuitry beyond the mesolimbic dopamine system: A neurobiological theory. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 35(2), 129–150.

Ikemoto, Yang, C., & Tan, A. (2015). Basal ganglia circuit loops, dopamine and motivation: A review and enquiry. Behavioural Brain Research, 290, 17–31.

Kaack, I., Chae, J., Shadli, S. M., & Hillman, K. (2020). Exploring approach motivation: Correlating self-report, frontal asymmetry, and performance in the Effort Expenditure for Rewards Task. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioural Neuroscience, 20(6), 1234–1247.

McClelland, D. (2005). Achievement motivation theory. Organizational behavior: Essential theories of motivation and leadership, 46-60.

Monni, A., Olivier, E., Morin, A. J. S., Olivetti Belardinelli, M., Mulvihill, K., & Scalas, L. F. (2020). Approach and avoidance in Gray’s, Higgins’, and Elliot’s perspectives: A theoretical comparison and integration of approach-avoidance in motivated behavior. Personality and Individual Differences, 166, 110163–.

Price, & Harmon-Jones, E. (2011). Approach motivational body postures lean toward left frontal brain activity: Approach motivational body postures. Psychophysiology, 48(5), 718–722.

Smith, K. E. & Pollak, S. D. (2022). Approach motivation and loneliness: Individual differences and parasympathetic activity. Psychophysiology, e14036–e14036.

Wimmer, S., Lackner, H. K., Papousek, I., & Paechter, M. (2018). Goal orientations and activation of approach versus avoidance motivation while awaiting an achievement situation in the laboratory. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1552–1552.

External links edit