Escape Theory Definition
Escape theory refers to the tendency for people to engage in behaviors to avoid an unpleasant psychological reaction. Whereas the common use of the term escape suggests physically removing oneself from a physical location (such as escaping from prison), escape theory is used to describe behaviors that enable a person to flee from negative perceptions of the self. Escape from the self may help a person temporarily avoid a negative psychological reaction, but the behaviors that follow from a motivation to escape from the self are frequently undesirable.
Escape Theory History and Background
Social psychology has a long history of examining the consequences of how people view themselves for their behavior. People construct and interpret meaning based on how well their identity falls short of, meets, or exceeds expectations that people set for themselves or that are supported by social norms. Escape theory is concerned primarily with the behaviors that follow when people recognize that some part of their identity falls short of desired standards. When people realize that a part of their identity fails to meet desired standards, they narrow the focus of their attention to the present and immediate environment to avoid meaningful thought regarding unflattering aspects of themselves.
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Over the past several decades, social psychologists have demonstrated that people construct and interpret meaning at both high and low levels. High levels of meaning involve comparison of one’s self against broad personal or social standards, such as how a current behavior might relate to an event that might occur in the future. Low levels of meaning, in contrast, involve a narrow, concrete awareness of the immediate present. Studying for an exam, for example, can be explained as fulfilling a long-term goal of achieving academic and career success (high level of meaning). At a low level of meaning, studying for an exam could be explained as simple eye and muscle movements. Charles Carver and Michael Scheier proposed that people shift their level of awareness to a low level of meaning when they are confronted with parts of their identity that fail to meet socially approved standards. Other research has shown that people prefer a low level of awareness after experiencing failure or stress. Thus, past theory and research have shown that people seek to escape from the self when one or more aspects of their identity fall short of expectations.
Six Main Steps in Escape Theory
Escape theory is organized in six main steps. First, the person has a severe experience in which he or she realizes that current outcomes (or circumstances) fall below societal or self-imposed standards. Second, the person blames these disappointing outcomes on internal aspects of the self (i.e., parts of his or her personality) as opposed to situational factors. Third, the person recognizes that current outcomes portray the self as inadequate, incompetent, unattractive, or guilty. Fourth, the person experiences negative emotions as a result of the realization that current outcomes fall short of desired expectations. Fifth, the person seeks to escape from this negative psychological reaction by avoiding high-level, meaningful thought. Sixth, the consequences of this avoidance of meaningful thought results in a lack of restraint, which may give rise to undesirable behaviors.
The steps in escape theory signify points in a causal process that are dependent on each other. The causal process will lead to undesirable behaviors only if the person proceeds through each of the previous five steps. If the person explains a recent failure as caused by situational factors (as opposed to blaming it on deficient aspects of the self), then the process will not lead to undesirable behaviors. Escape from the self should therefore be considered a relatively uncommon response to distressing or disappointing outcomes or circumstances.
Applying Escape Theory to Behavioral Outcomes
Escape theory has been applied to several behavioral outcomes. Nearly all of these behaviors produce immediate relief but also involve long-term negative consequences. Suicide attempts can be considered as attempts to escape from the self. Roy Baumeister showed that many suicide attempts are the result of a shift to a low level of meaning (i.e., focus on immediate environment) to avoid the negative emotions that result from not achieving a desired goal. Escape theory has also been applied to sexual masochism, or the tendency to derive sexual satisfaction from being physically or emotionally abused. People who engage in sexually masochistic behaviors often do so out of a motivation to narrow their attention to immediate, intense sensations, thereby making the likelihood of maintaining a normal sense of identity impossible. Alcohol use may also serve the function of allowing people to escape from negative thoughts about one’s self by reducing the ability for people to process complex information in a high-level, meaningful manner. Instead, alcohol use typically renders people incapable of considering how their current outcomes compare to societal and self-imposed standards for desirable behavior. Other research has suggested that cigarette smoking may be understood as goal-directed behavior aimed at achieving a low level of distraction from negative thoughts about one’s self.
Todd Heatherton and Baumeister have applied escape theory to binge eating. First, a person may realize that he or she is not meeting a self-imposed weight loss goal. Second, a person may explain his or her failure to lose weight as the result of being an incompetent person instead of focusing on how factors in the environment prevented him or her from losing weight. Third, the person may become intensely aware that his or her failure to lose weight reflects negatively on his or her identity of being a competent and attractive person. Fourth, the person experiences negative emotions after realizing that his or her current body weight does not meet his or her desired body weight. Fifth, the person shifts his or her level of awareness to a low level (i.e., focuses on sensations and objects in the current environment) to escape the negative psychological reaction that resulted from realizing that he or she did not meet a desired weight loss goal. Sixth, the focus on the immediate aspects of the current environment reduces the tendency for the person to consider the long-term consequences of his or her behavior. This lack of restraint increases the tendency for people to engage in typically undesirable behaviors, such as binge eating.
- Baumeister, R. F. (1990). Suicide as escape from the self. Psychological Review, 97, 90-113.