Motivation as per one definition is “the willingness to put effort into achieving goals”. In all motivation theories, ‘goals’ are very important. One such motivational framework involves self-regulatory theory which is concerned with how people self-regulate themselves in the pursuit of their goals.
The typical self-regulatory theory posits that feedback control is involved in goal pursuit and the feedback loop embodies four sub functions (an input (A), a reference value (D), a comparison (C), and an output (B)) as shown below. The reference value D is a goal or standard to one which aspires, or alternately, it is an undesired state that one wants to avoid and move away from as far as possible.
The input A can be compared to sensations coming in – they tell you how far you are from achieving the goal or avoiding the anti-goal. The Output B is a behavioural or motor output from the person, indulged in, so as to perturb the environment, such that one moves closer to the goal/ farther from the anti-goal. It is purposive and corrective action, in nature, and originates from within the person. The comparator C is cognitive in nature and may be a conscious or unconscious appraisal as to whether and how near you are to the goal; or away from the undesired anti-goal. The error signal that emanates from the comparison function, or its derivative, has been linked by some theorists as reflecting the emotion one feels when one is either making progress towards the goal (positive emotion), or not making progress (negative emotion) and which serves as a guide as to whether continue with that action or to modify behaviour (put in/ reduce efforts) to achieve the goal.
The leading theorists here are Carver and Scheier and also Higgins. You should read their original works to better understand the model and how affect arises from goal pursuit. Here I will be presenting my own theory inspired in large part by their work- but not accurately towing the lines they tow.
The first thing to note is that there can be two types of such feedback loops- one is where standard / reference value D is a desired end-state or goal and where behaviour is adjusted so that discrepancy between observation (input) and preferred value (goal ) is reduced. These are called discrepancy reducing feedback loops. As these involve goals, desired end-states that one approaches, opportunities one is on lookout to cash, I’ll refer to discussions of these loops as Approach Loops or approach motivation. The underlying motivation here pulls towards things. An example could be finding food.
The other kinds of loops are discrepancy-enhancing loops. Here the standard or reference value is an undesired end- state that one wants to avoid at all costs and where behaviour is adjusted so that discrepancy between the observation (input state) and undesired anti-goal is magnified or increased. As these involve anti-goals, or undesired end-sates that need to be avoided, or threats one is on the lookout for to remain secure, I’ll refer to these loops as Avoidance loops or avoidance motivation. The underlying motivation here pushes away from things. An example could be avoiding predators.
Now different situations, like finding food or avoiding predators, will demand different sorts of feedback loops; however many situations can be equally rephrased in terms of avoiding an anti-goal or approaching a goal. For example, consider a goal of maintaining weight- it can be phrased as a goal to be thin (an approach goal) or a anti-goal of avoiding being fat/ having a tummy/ being pot-bellied (an avoidance goal). Both will have different dynamics, as we will see later. Another difference one needs to keep in mind is whether the focus is on an ‘ideal’ value which reflects one’s own hopes and aspirations and is a kind of nice-to-have thing, versus whether the goal is conceived of as a necessary or ‘ought’ goal, which must be met no-matter-what and is reflective more of other people’s aspirations that have been internalized. An example relevant here is Anorexia Nervosa patients who are driven by ‘ought’ considerations, that they have to have a thin , socially acceptable figure versus those having Bulimia Nervosa, who believe that ‘ideal’ weight is nice-to-have ‘thin’ weight, but its internally driven. Note that both have approach motivation (want to be thin), though one conceives it as an ‘ought’/ necessary goal while the other as an ‘ideal’/nice-to-have goal.
Higgins is the leading researcher who has talked about this ‘ideal’ and ’ought’ distinction and related it to regulatory focus of promotion and prevention respectively. At times he has conflated ‘ideal’ with ‘approach’ and ‘ought’ with ‘avoidance’ although I find little justification for that and consider them to be different constructs.
It’s also important to note that people may be driven more by ‘approach motivation’ seeing opportunities everywhere or being more focused on that aspect of reality.; on the other hand people may be more driven by ‘avoidance motivation’ seeing threat everywhere or being more preoccupied by threat related anti-goals; also equally true is a fact that an approach goal can be seen as either ‘nice-to-have’/’ideal’ or necessary’/’ought’ goal i.e. either have a promotion focus or have a preventive focus. In avoidance goals, the distinction between preventive and promotional focus is not so much on whether the threat avoidance is necessary or not (all threat avoidance is necessary), but the relevant distinction could be whether it is real or imagined (you want to be careful and cautious even though the threat may just be imaginary) .
Now, some studies have related affect to these motivational states/traits. For example it has been found that success or failure in ‘approach motivation’ conditions, leads to a spectrum of emotions ranging from elation, eagerment and excitement at one end to frustration, anger and sadness on the other end. Similarly, success/ failure in ‘avoidance motivation’ conditions lead to a spectrum of emotions ranging from relief, serenity and contentment to fear, guilt and anxiety. These results I believe were shown by Carver and Scheier.
Also, Higgins in researching his promotion and prevention focus and ideal/ought distinctions (and I believe the experiments are still approach motivated and not going in avoidance motivation territory) has found that in ‘ideal focus condition’/’promotion focus,' the emotions involved are cheerfulness-dejection; while in ‘ought focus conditions’/’prevention focus’ the emotions involved are quiescent to agitation-related.
Now those who have read my last post know that I believe emotions are organised as follows:
With this in mind, we can list the basic emotion factors and dimensions as:
- Valence- from Joy (pleasant) to Sadness (unpleasant)
- Arousal – from Attentiveness/ Love (passive) to Anger/ Hostility (active)
- Dominance – from Interest/ Self-Assurance (in control) to Fear-Anxiety (lack of control)
- Predictiveness – from Surprise (unpredictable) to Guilt/Disgust (totally predictable responses)
Keeping this in mind, one can immediately draw parallels and see that
- Approach + Promotion = joy vs. sadness
- Approach + Prevention = attentive vs. angry
- Avoidance + Promotion = self-assurance vs. fear/anxiety
- Avoidance + Prevention = surprise/wonder vs. guilt/ disgust
All that remains is to explain what mechanisms, specific to approach/avoidance loops/ promotion/prevention focus, leads to these emotions. The rest of the post will address exactly that question.
One simplistic idea/scheme that I came up with was the following:
- Joy: Approach focus- focus on goals. The closer or within reach the goal seems (you are making progress towards achieving the goal), the Happier, Cheerful, Joyous you are. Joy or positive valence measures progress towards the goal. This idea is not too radical and Carver and Scheier position is the same.
- Sadness: Approach focus- focus on goals. The farther or beyond reach the goal seems (you are not making progress towards achieving the goal) , the sadder, dejected and disappointed you are. Sadness or negative valence measures distance/practicality towards the goal. This idea is again not too radical and Carver and Scheier position is the same.
- Attentiveness: Approach focus- focus on goals. If an obstacle is met while you have just started towards the goal (a first minute hiccup), you become more energised, but in a passive way by becoming more determined to pursues the goal. Attentiveness/ determination reflect that an obstacle is met, but as its start of the journey, it makes you passively energised.
- Anger: Approach focus- focus on goals. If an obstacle is met while you are very near the goal (a last minute hiccup), you become more energised, but in an active way by becoming agitated/ frustrated or angry why the cup should slip from the lip at the last moment. Anger reflects that an obstacle is met, but as it is the near-end of the journey, it makes you energised in an active manner.
- Self-assurance: Avoidance focus- focus on anti-goals. The closer or within reach the escape seems (you are making progress away from the Anti-goal) , the more self-assured , calm and relived you are. Self-assurance or self potency measures the probability of escape from the anti-goal and how much in control you are of the situation.
- Fear: Avoidance focus- focus on anti-goals: The farther or beyond reach the escape seems (you are moving towards the Anti-goal/ threat/ undesired state), the more fearful and anxious you are. Fear or other potency measures the nearness of the anti-goal and how much lack of control you have with regards to the situation.
- Surprise/Wonder: Avoidance focus- focus on anti-goals. If a miraculous escape happens while you are very near the anti-goal (a last minute escape), you become surprised, are thankful and in awe and wonder regarding your situation. Surprise reflects that a facilitation or lucky escape happened, but as it is at the very-end, when the threat was looming large, of the journey, it makes you surprised by the un-predictability of the situation.
- Guilt/disgust: Avoidance focus- focus on anti-goals. If a miraculous escape happens while you are very far from the anti-goal or very early when you haven’t made any efforts (a first minute escape), you become disgusted with yourself, are guilty as to why you overcame threat without efforts, and are disgusted at your situation. Guilt/ disgust reflect that a facilitation or lucky escape happened, but as it is at the very-beginning of the journey, when no efforts were made by you, it makes you feel disgusted/ guilty at the predictability of the situation.
Now, as I said, the above seemed too simplistic to me, so I tried complicating things, by looking more closely at promotion and prevention focus.
l Promotion focus
– needs of nurturance (e.g., nourishment)
– ideals, advancement, aspiration, and accomplishment
– eagerness-related means
– ensure “hits” in signal detection task at the cost of false positives- errors of commission
– More alternatives in case of ambiguity – at least one correct category
– Notion of sufficiency
– Risky strategies (more false alarms)
– Emphasis on Speed
– Novelty preference – new task or object
– Success feedback better
l Prevention focus
– Needs for security (e.g., protection)
– oughts, protection, safety, and responsibility
– vigilance-related means
– Ensure ‘correct rejections’ in SDT at the cost of false negatives – errors of omission.
– Less alternatives – less number of false categories
– Notion of necessity
– Conservative strategies (less false positives or mistakes)
– Emphasis on Accuracy
– Status quo- endowment effect
– Failure feedback better
So I thought a lot about that and was especially drawn to Signal detection theory. In particular, the environment may (signal present) or may not (signal absent) be conducive to fulfilment of a gaol/ anti-goal so how do we figure whether and when to indulge in particular goal/ anti-goal.
More specifically, given an opportunity in the environment, when to pursue it, when not to pursue it and when to pursue even though opportunity may not be there, but the need is there. To take a specific example, say my goal is to find food. The environment may or may not have food. Given that food is present (opportunity), when should I search for food (approach); when should I not search for food (no approach), when should I search for food though food may not be present (no opportunity/ need) and whether these cognitive appraisal can be coded by means of emotions? When to engage in a goal and when to disengage remains a big question...
So I came up with this matrix:
The matrix essentially says:
- Joy: When you think opportunity is present and when you do indulge in the task you feel you are doing the right thing and are happy.
- Sadness: When you think opportunity is present and when you do not indulge in the task, but indulge in some other approach or avoidance task you feel regret/ sadness etc due to the missed opportunity/ opportunity cost.
- Attentiveness: When you think opportunity is NOT present and so you do not indulge in the task, you are still attentive and on lookout for this or any other opportunity and you feel eager, alert and attentive.
- Anger: When you think opportunity is NOT present but still due to the underlying need (say hunger) you not indulge in the task, knowing that it may be fruitless, you feel agitated, angry and frustrated.
The above matrix was for Approach loops; I came up with a similar matrix for Avoidance loops. The point to note here is that while Approach loops runs as foreground task, the Avoidance loop, because of its sensitivity, runs at all times as a background task; always on the lookout for threats and unconsciously monitoring the situations. Also as I am using some computer jargon, I believe Avoidance tasks can pre-empt other tasks (both avoidance and approach); while Approach tasks only yield cooperatively to other tasks (except if pre-empted by an avoidance task). Enough of computer jargon.
To return to our matrix:
- Self-assurance: When you think threat is present and when you do indulge in the avoidance task you feel you are doing the right thing and are self-assured/ calm, despite the danger in which you are.
- Fear: When you think threat is present, but you have still not started indulging in the avoidance task, but were indulging in some other approach or avoidance task, you feel a surge of fear due to the new threat and that triggers the new module to take care of that threat
- Surprise: When you think threat is NOT present and so you do not indulge in the avoidance task, you are surprised that how come no threats are present and assume it’s now a peaceful and happy time - a time to focus and switch to Approach goals.
- Guilt: When you think threat is NOT present but might just be a figment of your imagination, still due to the imagined threat, you end up indulging in the avoidance task, not-knowing whether the threat did not materialize because you took action, or it was never present; you feel trapped here; disgusted by your cowardly behaviour and feeling guilt at having avoided a situation, though there might not have been a threat.
So there you have two alternate formulations of how affect arises from goal-directed pursuits and self regulatory focuses.
I would like to end by noting that ‘approach system’ is related to biologically based BAS (behavioural activation system) ; while ‘avoidance system’ is related to BIS (Behavioural inhibition system). There is another system postulated the Flight/fight/freeze module which I believe is related to Prevention focus + approach; while the normal BAS is related to Promotion focus + Approach. The BIS is related to promotion focus + avoidance while a yet undiscovered/ unnamed in this context system is related to Prevention + Avoidance. But more about that in the next post!