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Sandeep Gautam
Sandeep Gautam

To Avoid, Approach, Perform or to Learn?

How is the motivational system structured?

English: Autonomy Mastery Purpose vs. Carrot a...

English: Autonomy Mastery Purpose vs. Carrot and Stick (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Autonomy Mastery Purpose vs. Carrot and Stick (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I intended to finish my trilogy on psychological disorders taxonomy with this post; but before I get on with the third post in the series, a minor digression , which will help make up the case for the third post thesis, is in order.

So today, instead, I will talk about the latest craze in town - harmonious and obsessive passion and how it’s related to approach/ avoidance goals/ motivations.

To recap, there are multiple concepts floating around. One is that of performance/competence versus learning/mastery goals and behaviours as delineated by Dweck. Dweck believes that people have either an entity or fixed theory of ability (intelligence is innate) or an incremental and malleable theory of ability (with efforts intelligence can be increased) and this has important consequences for how one approaches tasks.

Those who have an entity theory of ability, also have a performance oriented mindset where it is more important to appear competent than to be actually competent at the task. One could also say that ego is more relevant than task and ones response is driven by ego demands rather than task demands. Consequently one approaches easy tasks and avoids difficult tasks. When faced with challenges not commensurate with one’s ability, one gives up easily.

On the other hand, those who have an incremental view of ability, have a learning mindset where they see each difficult or beyond ability task as an opportunity for learning, believe that by persisting and putting efforts they can succeed in difficult tasks , stretch themselves if needed and persist in face of difficulties. The task is more relevant and drives behaviour and engagement rather than needs of the ego.

So far so good. Up comes the concepts of approach and avoidance motivation (Elliot, Carver/ Schierer). In a nutshell, you are driven by approach motivation if you act to move towards a desirable state or end goal. Let’s say, you are hungry and want to eat. The desired state is finding food, and the hunger (approach ) motivation makes you seek food sources.

Avoidance motivation, is when someone is driven to avoid certain undesirable end states and move as far away from them as possible. Let’s say you don’t want to be eaten by a predator. Avoiding being eaten (safety) motivation ensures that you take necessary precautions and move away form say dangerous, open spaces.

In general it has been shown that people with approach motivation are more risk-prone, exploratory and have positive SWB as compared to people with avoidance motivation who are more vigilant, risk-averse and have negative or neutral SWB.

Elliot and others have tried to bring these two concepts together by positing a mastery orientation and two achievement orientations – one achievement-approach flavour and the other achievement-avoidance flavour. What beats me is why they didn’t think of bifurcating the mastery into two flavours?

Up comes Vallernad et al with their concepts of harmonious passion (HP) and obsessive passion (OP) - both of which lead to mastery via the process of deliberate practice. It’s easy to see that HP and OP can be conceived of as two mastery/ learning orientations- one related to avoid system and another to approach system.

To elucidate, consider the following 4 systems

1. Achievement –Avoid: a ‘like’ system

  • Basic underlying theme: I don’t want to ‘feel’ bad/painful.
  • ‘Like’ system (affective) leading to both pain and pleasure experiences, but pain is stronger than pleasure in directing behaviour and hence emphasis on avoiding painful past outcomes.
  • Example thought: I don’t want to lose in this competitive setting (losing is painful).
  • DO NOT perform badly. It HURTS!
  • Primary emotion: Fighting spirit – fight as if you have everything to lose.

2. Learning- Exploit : a ‘mastery’ system

  • Basic underlying theme: Let me leverage my strengths / master this task/ domain.‘mastery’ system leading to both specialised (narrow) and generalised (broad) scope for developing competence and mastery; but driven by narrow focus as its more easy to develop deep and narrow expertise than develop breadth and depth in domain.
  • Example thought: Let me focus on this strength/ fix this particular weakness.
  • DO NOT waste time in other activities/ on other strengths/ passions/ weaknesses. FOCUS.
  • Inability to engage in other activities than the chosen one in which one wants to develop mastery; the route is through repetitive deliberate practise. Time is committed.
  • Primary emotion: Obsession: do it again and again to achieve perfection.

3. Learning- Explore: a ‘discovery’ system

  • Basic underlying theme: Let me discover my strengths / explore fully this task/ domain / move to the next level.
  • ‘discovery’ system led by both active explorations and passive absorbance; however active explorations are more effective for finding one’s talents and developing ones skills; so driven by active experimentation. Rather than passive cognitive map style learning and realization.
  • Example thought: Let me explore various variations around a theme.
  • DO NOT sit back and learn passively. EXPLORE. Challenge yourself.
  • Inability to disengage from exploratory tasks/ domains due to positive feedback spirals; consequent neglect of other domains/ tasks. Efforts/ energy is committed.
  • Primary emotion: Mania- energy to indulge in passions at the cost of neglecting hygiene/ daily tasks.

4. Achievement- Approach system: a ’want/ value/ salience’ system

  • Basic underlying theme: I ‘value’ that particular outcome.
  • ‘Want/ Value’ system (motivational) driven by both intrinsic and extrinsic valuations, but intrinsically valued goals are preferred and are stronger than extrinsically valued goals in directing behaviour and hence emphasis on approaching intrinsically valued outcomes.
  • Example thought: I want to win in this competitive setting (not for the rewards, but for inner satisfaction of being a winner/ giving my best).
  • DO perform at your best. That’s what you VALUE.
  • Primary emotion: joy: Giving you best is fun and liberating.

Thus, I claim is the structure of the motivational space: two motivations driven by performance/ achievement orientation vis-a-vis mastery/learning motivation; and two motivations driven by avoidance/ achievement motivations intersecting with these two.

In the next post I will return to the psychopathology taxonomy and extend this to a 4 x $ matrix of criss-crossing BIS/BAS/ FFS and RDoC’s –ve, +ve valence and social/cognitive systems.

About the Author
Sandeep Gautam

Sandeep Gautam is a software developer and science writer at The Mouse Trap.

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