Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Avoidance motivation

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Avoidance motivation:
Fear of failure and its affect on performance and mental health
Epiphany-bookmarks.svg This page is part of the Motivation and emotion book. See also: Guidelines.


This chapter focuses on avoidance motivation. In particular, performance-avoidance goals and the implications it has on mental health. This chapter addresses two focus questions:

  1. What role does fear of failure play with performance-avoidance goals?
  2. What implications does this have on mental health

Avoidance motivation is the energising of behavior by, or the direction of behavior away from, negative stimuli (objects, events, possibilities) (Elliot, A.J. & Church, M.A., 1997). Another explanation for avoidance motivation is taking (or not taking) action to avoid something unpleasant. An example that might help explain could be; a woman is really interested in learning Spanish. The only way to this in her community is to take an adults class. She’s a little shy and has a hard time approaching people. She really wants to learn, but there is a problem. She believes she will make a fool of herself in the class. As such, she never enrolls in the class. Her avoidance strategy is to just never try. In avoidant behaviour, people do things to avoid something. Fear of snakes and heights fall into this category. Anxiety on the other hand may not immediately elicit a specific goal object (Franken, 2007). People who are anxious are unable to specify the source; they experience a sense of dread. Avoidance causes tend to be very compelling; they are difficult or near impossible to ignore. For example, people who fear snakes and spiders feel a strong sense of need to immediately distance themselves from those goal objects. However, because people are often unable to pinpoint the source of their anxiety, they attempt to cope with it by finding a safe place (Franken, 2007). For example, a person who experiences anxiety at a party, without knowing exactly what the source is, they might decide to leave the party and continue to avoid future scenarios. Avoidant causes often involve threats to our survival, from a biological perspective, two primary goals are to survive and produce (Franken, 2009). Even though avoidant causes that don't pose a threat to a person's survival they still evoke the same reaction. Not all people are equally anxious; some are more anxious at birth (Kagan, 2003; Watson & Clark, 1984, 1993). Those who are born anxious are more likely to engage in avoidant behaviours, even thinking of certain activities is enough to make them feel anxious. For example they might not eat certain foods because they think they will get sick, they might not travel as they feel they might get injured. To fully understand avoidance motivation you must have an insight to Achievement motivation.


Avoidance motivation sits along side Achievement Motivation, which has been discussed in scientific psychology for over a century (James, 1890,pp309-311). Through the years there have been numerous theoretical ideas of achievement motivation, the most prominent being: the achievement motive approach, the test anxiety approach, the attributional approach, the self-worth approach, and the achievement goal approach (Elliot, 1999). The achievement goal approach has clearly been the most influential. The two theoretical approaches to achievement motivation are classical and contemporary. Classical approach of achievement behaviour includes the dynamics-of-action model, whereas the contemporary approach is a cognitive approach that centres on the goals people adopt in achievement situations.

Achievement goal approach research has been rapidly growing for education, developmental and the social-personality psychology. This approach is the foundation for much applied tasks in school, work, and sports environments (Elliot, 1999); so much so that the National Advisory Mental Health Council identified that research on achievement goals was an integral component of their behavioural science research agenda on emotion and motivation in 1995.

The achievement goal approach was first brought to surface in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s by the revolutionary work of Dweck (1986), Nicholls (1984), and a few others (Elliot, 1999). Two theoretical approaches dominate the understanding of achievement motivation: classical and contemporary (Elliot & Church,1997). Dweck and Nicholls pinpointed two types of goals that vary as a function of how competence is defined, mastery goals and performance goals. Performance goals are said to be linked to a negative set of processes and outcomes (withdrawal of effort when faced with failure, surface processing of study material, decreased enjoyment in the task); mastery goals in contrast are linked to a positive set of processes and outcomes (persistence when faced with failure, deep processing of study material, enhanced task enjoyment (Elliot et al, 1997).

The evidence Dweck and Nicholls presented in support of the performance-mastery goal approach was impressive and compelling and laid the foundation for this framework to become the dominant theoretical approach in contemporary achievement motivation literature (Elliot, 1999). Another significant player in the conceptualisation of achievement motivation is Atkinson, who took a ‘person on the street’ view of approach-avoidance distinction (Elliot, 1999). Atkinson took the classical view of achievement behaviour, which includes the dynamics-of-action model. Gray (1970, 1982) suggested that humans have two nervous systems that correspond respectively to an approach system and avoidance system. His work was the forerunner of what has become part of the generally accepted view that, indeed, here is a biological basis for approach and avoidant behaviour. What gives rise to some of the individual differences we observe among humans, according to this view, is hat we can inherit different amounts of each system such that some people are more inclined to approach and others are more inclined to avoid (Franken, 2007). It has been conceptualized that people have different temperaments that fall along a continuum ranging from having an approach temperament to having an avoidant temperament. This concept is meant to capture the idea that we approach life with a particular orientation that affects everything we do and say (Franken, 2007). However, it is only an orientation and in the end learning and cognition also plays an imperative role.

Implicit theory[edit]

The first implicit theory applies to “entity theorists,” people who believe they are endowed with fixed, enduring qualities. The thinking is “you either have it, or you don’t” in that some people are smart and motivated while others are not. The second implicit theory applies to “incremental theorists,” people who believe they are endowed with flexible, changing qualities. The thinking is “the more you try, the more you learn, the better you get” in that all people can become smarter and more motivated (Reeve, 2009).

In short entity theorists believe people have a fixed amount of intelligence, personality and motivation. Whereas incremental theorists believe personal qualities are something that grow through effort and learning (Reeve, 2009).

Implicit theories are important to achievement strivings because they guide the type of goals we pursue (Elliot et al, 1997).

For an entity theorist, the meaning of effort is “the more you try, the dumber you therefore must be”. High effort means low ability. High effort is, in fact, evidence that the performer lacks ability. For an incremental theorist, the meaning of effort is that it is a tool, the means by which people turn on and take advantage of their skills and abilities. What one needs when facing a difficult task is high effort, which poses a motivational dilemma to the entity theorist (Reeve, 2009). High effort to an entity theorist signifies low ability, which is precisely the sort of thing an entity theorist wants to avoid. Entity theorists tend to adopt maladaptive motivational patterns by withholding effort, engaging in self-handicapping to protect the self, and never really understanding or appreciating what effort expenditures can do for them in life (Dweck, 1999; Stipek & Gralinski, 1996). Incremental theorists experience no conflict between the effort challenging tasks require and their willingness to roll up their sleeves and engage in effortful and persistent work.

Avoidance motivation[edit]

Avoiding failure[edit]

If you take risks, you may fail. But if you do not take risks, you will surely fail. The greatest risk of all is to do nothing.
- Robert Goizueta

Achievement behaviour depends not only on the individual’s need for achievement but also on the task-specific probability of success (Reeve, 2009). Which is where performance avoidance can come into play. Just as much as people have a need for achievement, they also have motivation to avoid it, especially if they feel that they will fail at the set task. Performance motivation is an individual’s defense against the loss of self-esteem, social respect, and the fear of embarrassment.

Tendency to avoid failure

  1. Taf = Maf x Pf x If
  2. Maf: motive to avoid failure.
  3. Pf : Probability of failure.
  4. If : negative incentive value for failure

With performance goals, the person facing the standard of excellence seeks o demonstrate or prove competence, display high ability, outperform others, and succeed with little apparent effort. Achieving a performance goal means doing it better than others. However the fear of failure drives people to control their behaviour varying ways that can interfere with performance, persistence, and emotions (Reeve, 2009). It is the fear of failure that prompts individuals to adopt performance avoidance goals; such as trying to avoid making a mistake, performing poorly, or embarrassing oneself. (Reeve, 2009). These avoidance goals lead individuals to under perform, quit, and lose interest in what they are doing (Elliot & Chuch, 1997; Elliot & Harackiewicz, 1996; Roney, Higgins, & Shah, 1995). This forms the basis of a relationship (Fear of failure →performance-avoidance goals → maladjusted coping style in achievement settings) has significant implications for personal adjustment and mental health (Reeve, 2009).

Performance avoidance and well-being[edit]

The more people fear failure the more likely they are to adopt performance–avoidance goals. The more avoidance goals a person harbours, the poorer their subsequent well-being tends to be on measures such as low self-esteem, personal control, vitality, life satisfaction and psychological well-being (Elliot & Sheldon, 1997). The reason why well-being suffers when one adopts performance-avoidance goals is that trying so hard to avoid poor performances, one controls day-to-day behaviour in ways that produce dissatisfaction, negative affect, and little enjoyment or fulfillment (Reeve, 2009). Always trying to avoid embarrassing oneself, even when successfully accomplished takes it’s toll on well-being (Reeve, 2009). People who adopt performance goals are concerned with looking smart and with not looking dumb. They are concerned with performing well, especially when others are watching. The goal is therefore to use performance as the means to prove that one has much of a desirable characteristic (intelligence). For example, when university students choose an elective, they often will choose a class that they will perform well in. This ensures that they will achieve a high grade and will look smart to impress others (Reeve, 2009).


The problem with avoidance behaviors is that they maintain the symptoms of anxiety. If you always avoid giving speeches, or if you only give speeches without making eye contact, your anxiety about giving a speech will never diminish (Durand, V. M., & Barlow, D. H., 2010). Instead of avoiding giving speeches, or only delivering them in a "safe" way, you need lots of exposure to giving speeches without avoiding, escaping, or using safety behaviors. An effective treatment for social anxiety disorder (SAD), one of the goals of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is to identify avoidance behaviors and provide exposure to feared situations.

This chart shows the lifetime prevalence of anxiety disorders found in the Epidemiological Catchment Area Study. Data from: L. N. Robins and D. A. Regier, Eds. Psychiatric Disorders in America: The Epidemiologic Catchment Area Study. New York, NY: The Free Press.

Phobia is one type of disorder in which avoidance conditioning plays a critical role . Another is obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), a disorder characterised by persistent thoughts, impulses, or images (called obsessions), and repetitive, stereotyped actions (called compulsions) that are carried out in response to the obsessions (Durand, V. M., & Barlow, D. H., 2010).

Performance avoidance shares similar symptoms to SAD (Durand, V. M., & Barlow, D. H.,2010). Physical symptoms often accompanying social anxiety disorder include excessive blushing, sweating (hyperhidrosis), trembling, palpitations, nausea, and stammering often accompanied with rapid speech. Panic attacks may also occur under intense fear and discomfort. An early diagnosis may help minimize the symptoms and the development of additional problems, such as depression (Durand, V. M., & Barlow, D. H., 2010). Some sufferers may use alcohol or other drugs to reduce fears and inhibitions at social events. It is common for sufferers of social phobia to self-medicate in this fashion, especially if they are undiagnosed, untreated, or both; this can lead to alcoholism, eating disorders or other kinds of substance abuse.

To view a quick loop video of what someone might look like if they are anxious, please click the link. Media:Anxiety.gif

Avoidant personality disorder is reported to be especially prevalent in people with anxiety disorders, although estimates of comorbidity vary widely due to differences in (among others) diagnostic instruments. Research suggests that approximately 10–50% of people who have panic disorder with agoraphobia have avoidant personality disorder, as well as about 20–40% of people who have social phobia (social anxiety disorder) (Durand, V. M., & Barlow, D. H., 2010). Some studies report prevalence rates of up to 45% among people with generalized anxiety disorder and up to 56% of those with obsessive-compulsive disorder (Durand, V. M., & Barlow, D. H., 2010). Although it is not mentioned in the DSM-IV, earlier theorists have proposed a personality disorder which has a combination of features from borderline personality disorder and avoidant personality disorder, called "avoidant-borderline mixed personality" (AvPD/BPD).

The most important clinical point to emerge from studies of social anxiety disorder is the benefit of early diagnosis and treatment. Social anxiety disorder remains under-recognized in primary care practice, with patients often presenting for treatment only after the onset of complications such as clinical depression or substance abuse disorders (Durand, V. M., & Barlow, D. H., 2010). Research has provided evidence for the efficacy of two forms of treatment available for social phobia: certain medications and a specific form of short-term psychotherapy called Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), the central component being gradual exposure therapy.

Personality avoidance disorder - People with avoidant personality disorder are preoccupied with their own shortcomings and form relationships with others only if they believe they will not be rejected (Durand, V. M., & Barlow, D. H., 2010). Loss and rejection are so painful that these individuals will choose to be lonely rather than risk trying to connect with others.

  • Avoids physical contact because it has been associated with an unpleasant or painful stimulus
  • Feelings of inadequacy
  • Severe low self-esteem
  • Self-loathing
  • Mistrust of others
  • Emotional distancing related to intimacy
  • Highly self-conscious
  • Self-critical about their problems relating to others
  • Problems in occupational functioning
  • Lonely self-perception, although others may find the relationship with them meaningful
  • Feeling inferior to others
  • In some more extreme cases — agoraphobia

Treatment of avoidant personality disorder can employ various techniques, such as social skills training, cognitive therapy, exposure treatment to gradually increase social contacts, group therapy for practicing social skills, and sometimes drug therapy (Durand, V. M., & Barlow, D. H., 2010). A key issue in treatment is gaining and keeping the patient's trust, since people with avoidant personality disorder will often start to avoid treatment sessions if they distrust the therapist or fear rejection. The primary purpose of both individual therapy and social skills group training is for individuals with avoidant personality disorder to begin challenging their exaggerated negative beliefs about themselves (Durand, V. M., & Barlow, D. H., 2010). However, because of the deep-seated feelings of inferiority and extreme social fear, it is unlikely that those with AvPD will ever overcome the disorder entirely, with the prognosis being even worse for those low-functioning persons as they are likely to drop out of treatment if they become too anxious (Durand, V. M., & Barlow, D. H., 2010).

According to the DSM-IV-TR, avoidant personality disorder occurs in approximately 0.5% to 1% of the general population. However, data from the 2001-02 National Epidemiologic Survery on Alcohol and Related Conditions indicates a prevalence rate of the disorder of 2.36% in the American general population. It is seen in about 10% of psychiatric outpatients.

See also[edit]




When people experience fear they immediately escape to a safe place and avoid the scenario in the future?

No, they usually don't know what it is they afraid of and experience intense dread
Yes, however they don't avoid the scenario in the future.
Yes, they find a safe place to escape to and tend to avoid any future exposure to the goal object.


Gray had a classical view on achievement motivation?

No, he had a contemporary view
Yes, he had a classical view.


Avoidance motivation is the energising of behavior by, or the direction of behavior away from, negative stimuli (objects, events, possibilities?



Durand, V. M., & Barlow, D. H. (2010). Essentials of Abnormal Psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Inc.

Dweck, C. S (1999). "Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development". Philadelphia: Psychology Press.

Elliot, A. J., (1999). Approach and avoidance motivation and achievement goals. Eductional Psychologist, 34, 169-189.

Elliot, A. J., & Church, M. (1997). A hierarchical model of approach and avoidance achievement motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 218-232.

Elliot, A. J., & Harackiewicz, J. (1996). Approach and avoidance goals and intrinsic motivation: A mediational analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 461 – 475.

Elliot, A. J., & Sheldon, K. (1997). Avoidance achievement motivation: A personal goals analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 171-185.

Elliot, A. J., Sheldon, K., & Church, M. (1997). Avoidance personal goals an subjective well-being. "Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 915-927.

Franken, R.E. (2007). Human Motivation. (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson.

Gray, J. A. (1970). The psychophysiological basis of introversion-extroversion. Behaviour Research Therapy, 8, 249-266.

Gray, J. A. (1982). The neuropsychology of anxiety: An enquiry in the functions of the septo-hippocampal system. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Reeve, J. (2009). Understanding Motivation and Emotion. (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Stipek, D. J., & Gralinski, H. (1996).Children's beliefs about intelligence and school performance. "Journal of Educational Psychology", 88, 397-407.

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