Approach-Avoidance Conflict

Approach-Avoidance Conflict Definition

Approach means moving toward something. Avoidance means moving away from it. Obviously you can’t move toward and away from the same thing at the same time. Approach-avoidance conflict arises when a goal has both positive and negative aspects, and thus leads to approach and avoidance reactions at the same time. Kurt Lewin introduced the concept, referring to two competing forces of positive and negative valence that act upon an individual in parallel. For example, if a person wants to eat a cake (positive valence) but also wants to avoid gaining weight (negative valence), this constitutes an approach-avoidance conflict that has to be solved. People can also experience approach-approach conflicts (two positive forces are activated; for example, if the person considers two movies worth seeing), avoidance-avoidance conflicts (two negative forces are activated; for example, if the person has to do decide whether to go to the dentist or to finish unpleasant homework), or a double approach-avoidance conflict (two choice alternatives contain both positive and negative aspects; for example, if the decision between two movies is complicated because both contain performers one likes and hates). All kinds of conflicts have been discussed throughout various areas of psychology, including psychopathology, motivation psychology, and organizational psychology.

Factors for Strength of Conflict and Conflict Resolution

Approach-Avoidance ConflictFor approach-avoidance conflict strength and resolution, Lewin suggested three factors: tension which is created by a need or a desire (e.g., I am hungry vs. I want to lose weight), magnitude of valence (e.g., I do like cake a lot vs. I do hate being overweight), and psychological distance (e.g., the cake is easy to get vs. it is hard to obtain my goal of 160 pounds). If tension, valence, and distance are equally strong, the conflict is not easy to solve, making it so that such conflicts can be relatively stable over time. Psychologically, one possible solution is to change the valence of the aspects of the goal aspects. One can, for example, devalue the cake by actively searching for negative aspects of it, or one can increase the importance of staying slim by collecting even more positive aspects of it. For approach-avoidance conflicts, distance seems to be a crucial factor. Lewin reasoned that whereas from a distance the positive valence looms larger, the closer one gets to the conflicted goal, the larger looms the negative valence. An individual first approaches the conflicted goal at a distance, then is blocked and vacillates at an intermediate point when avoidance and approach become equally strong, and finally retreats when even closer to the goal.

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Further Qualifications and Findings

Neal Miller advanced this approach and combined it with Clark Hull’s notion of goal gradients, defining distance as a crucial variable of motivation. The closer one is to the goal, the stronger the motivation (i.e., the goal looms larger effect), and this gradient is steeper for avoidance than approach goals. In other words, as you get closer to something you want, the desire to approach it grows stronger little by little; whereas as you get closer to something you hate or wish to avoid, the desire to avoid it grows stronger rapidly. Because in conflict situations the stronger reaction usually wins, avoidance reactions have a slight advantage over approach reactions to be instantiated. Primary support for the differences of approach versus avoidance gradients came from studies by Judson Brown, in which harnessed rats were interrupted at various stages of approaching food and avoiding shock, showing that avoidance reactions were stronger when the rats were closer to shock than when they were approaching food. Seymour Epstein was able to find similar results with amateur parachutists before their first jump, illustrating that fear reactions increased the closer individuals were to their goal. On the other hand, directly before the jump the approach reaction increased dramatically, as presumably individuals were able to cope with the fear quite efficiently. Walter Fenz qualified the findings in showing that good parachutists and experts show approach reactions earlier before their jump.

However, over the years, results from studies on humans and animals were sometimes quite inconsistent with this theory, because for some individuals approach gradients were steeper, and thus qualifications were needed.

Jens Forster and colleagues addressed why the goal should loom larger in greater detail. They reasoned that while working toward a goal, each step that makes goal attainment more likely is a success. The value of a success increases as its contribution to goal attainment increases. The contribution of a success to goal attainment depends on the magnitude of the remaining discrepancy to the goal that it reduces. If there are equal steps taken while working toward the goal, each step reduces a higher proportion of the remaining discrepancy. If the goal is to solve each of 10 anagrams, for example, solving the first reduces 10% of the remaining discrepancy, whereas solving the last reduces 100% of the remaining discrepancy. Thus, the value of a success increases as one is closer to the goal. The greater the value is of succeeding, the stronger the motivation is to succeed. And the stronger the motivation is to succeed, the stronger the strategic motivations are that yield success.

Moreover, the goal looms larger effect may differ based on one’s chronic or situational regulatory focus. According to regulatory focus theory by Tory Higgins, goal-directed behavior is regulated by two distinct motivational systems. These two systems, termed promotion and prevention, each serve different survival-relevant concerns. The promotion system is conceived of as orienting the individual toward obtaining nurturance and is thought to underlie higher-level concerns with accomplishment and achievement. In contrast, the prevention system is considered to orient the individual toward obtaining safety and is thought to underlie higher-level concerns with self-protection and fulfillment of responsibilities. Critically, activation of these motivational systems is posited to engender distinct strategic inclinations, with promotion leading to greater approach motivation in service of maximizing gains and prevention leading to greater avoidance motivation in service of minimizing losses. Consistently, Forster and colleagues showed that the steep avoidance gradient can be found only in individuals with chronically or situationally induced prevention foci, whereas for individuals with chronically or situationally induced promotion foci, approach motivation, but not avoidance motivation, increased the closer individuals were to their specific goal.


  1. 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.
  2. Weiner, B. (1980). Human motivation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.