Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Frustration

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What happens when our goals and expectations are thwarted?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure1. Frustration, we all know that horrible "arrgghhhh" feeling.

We have all experienced frustration at some point in our lives. Whether it was caused by being stuck in traffic, an uncooperative vending machine, or attempting to master a new skill, they all lead to that same annoying “arggghhhhhh” feeling of frustration. But have you ever really stopped and thought about frustration? What is it? What are the components that comprise a frustrating experience? Is there any "upside" to frustration? Through the application of current psychological theories of motivation and emotions to frustration, this chapter will help you to improve your life by mastering your frustration and using it to your advantage.

Definition of frustration[edit | edit source]

"The Oxford Dictionary has defined "frustration" as "the feeling of being upset or annoyed as a result of being unable to change or achieve something". And de Botton (2000) has put it this way "at the heart of every frustration lies a basic structure: the collision of a wish with an unyielding reality" (p. 180). From these definitions we can identify or infer five contributing aspects to a frustrating experience; a goal (a desire to achieve or change something):

  1. expectations about the difficulty of that goal
  2. opposition to the achievement of that goal
  3. an emotional response related to frustration (as opposed to a "happy" response for instance)
  4. and any subsequent frustration-motivated behaviour.

As frustration is an emotional response to the opposition of motivated behaviour, to understand it is we must understand the components that comprise the emotional experience of frustration based on the theories of emotions, and the role frustration plays in the context of goal achievement (or non-achievement).

"... at the heart of every frustration lies a basic structure: the collision of a wish with an unyielding reality ..."

(de Botton, 2000, p. 80).}}

A four-component model of frustration[edit | edit source]

Table 1. Izard's four components of an emotion (Izard, 1993).
Four components of an emotion
  1. Subjective Experience – Including feelings and cognitions.
  2. Physiological - Such as arousal levels for fight or flight.
  3. Social-Expressive – Such as facial expressions and body language.
  4. Purposive - Emotion-motivated behaviour.

Izard (1993) has proposed a widely accepted four-component model of emotions where emotions manifest themselves in four distince ways:

  1. subjective experience (including feelings and cognitions)
  2. physiological response (arousal levels for fight or flight)
  3. social-expressive (e.g. facial expressions or body language to inform those around us what emotion we are currently experiencing) and a
  4. purposive component (e.g. anger might ready us for an unavoidable fight).

Based on this model, Izard (1993) defined an emotion as being short-lived feeling-arousal-purposive-expressive phenomena that help us to adapt to the opportunities and challenges we face during important life events (Izard, 1993). From this model we can establish that to understand frustration we must understand all four of these components of frustration (i.e. subjective experience, physiological, purposive and social-expressive elements).

The "social-expressive" component of frustration[edit | edit source]

Two of the prevalent approaches to describing social-expressive aspects of emotions are the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) and the Specific Affect Coding System (SPAFF). The FACS was developed by Ekman and Friesen (1978) as a taxonomy for describing and codifying human emotions, where each emotion is described as a combination of “codes” for “facial expressions”, “head movement”, “eye movement”, “visibility”, and “gross behaviour” and can be expressed as either a normal facial expression or as a “microexpression” (a very brief, often imperceptible, involuntary facial expression). SPAFF uses a similar coding system to FACS and but was developed by Gottman and Krokoff (1989) specifically for marital conflict (Coan and Gottman, 2007). Neither the SPAFF or FACs have specific codings for "frustration", however they both identify frustration as a “relatively low intensity form of anger” (Coan & Gottman, 2007) or "belonging to the anger family of emotions" (Ekman 1994a). The FACS and SPAFF codes for frustration (as low intensity anger) are shown below.

Table 2. FACs and SPAFF social-expressive indicators for frustration.
FACS indicators for frustration SPAFF indicators for frustration
  • Action Units (AUs) – 4 + 5 +7 + 23.
    • Brow lowerer
    • Upper lid raiser
    • Lips pressing together
    • Lid tightener
    • Lip tightener (Ekman and Friesen, 1978)
  • Action Units (AUs) – 4, 5, 7, 4+5, 4+5+7, 23, 24.
    • Lips thinning
    • Red on upper lip disappearing
    • Lips pressing together
    • Teeth clenching
    • Muscles of neck/jaw tighten
    • Voice may lower in pitch and tempo
    • Voice may suddenly increase in pitch/amplitude/tempo
    • Voice may “growl” when yelling (Gottman and Krokoff, 1989)

The "subjective experience" component of frustration[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Many models of emotions do not include frustration, including Plutchik's wheel.

Feelings of frustration[edit | edit source]

Anger and aggression are feelings commonly associated with frustration. Ekman and Friesman (1978) and Gottman and Krokoff (1989) in their work on the expressive component of emotions have identified frustration as being expressed as a "low-level form of anger". Aggression is a consequence of frustration that is widely recognised. In 1939 Dollard and colleagues proposed the "frustration-aggression hypothesis", which stated that the failure to obtain a desired or expected goal leads directly to aggressive behaviour. This theory is considered contentious by many researchers, with proponents for (Haskell, 2000) and against (Nickel, 1974; Pastore, 1950), however much of the argument centres around the specific nature and strength of the relationship between frustration and aggression rather than the fact that aggression is often associated with frustration. Given that many behavioural researchers consistently use the extinction[clarification needed]-frustration-aggression relationship described above to induce and research aggression, the existence of a link between frustration and aggression can be considered to be well supported (Haskell, 2000). Another emotion commonly associated with frustration is depression (Powell, Honey & Symbaluk, 2013).

Cognitions of frustration[edit | edit source]

Some people are more prone to experiencing frustration. Research has shown that there are significant similarities in their cognitive styles. Calkins et al. (2002) were able to group people into those who were easily frustrated and those who were less so. Those who were more easily frustrated were associated with a particular temperament that could be characterised by a lack of attentional control, a tendency to be very active and easily distressed (particularly by new situations). These people were also more physiologically reactive and less able to regulate those physiological reactions, and were more likely to seek help from others. This supports Jost's (1941) findings that emotionally unstable individuals reacted more violently and with greater variability to situations of frustration. Degnan, Calkins, and Keane (2008) found that children were more likely to demonstrate more disruptive behaviour (including aggression) if they had high frustration reactivity and low physiological regulation, which supported Eisenberg, Fabes, Nyman, Bernzweig, and Pinuela's (1994) argument that low emotional regulation and high levels of emotional arousal increase the tendencies to displays of aggressive behaviour

More recently, Harrington (2011) has argued that some individuals suffer from "frustration intolerance beliefs" which leave them dysfunctional, and unable or unwilling to work towards personal goals. Harrington argues that frustration intolerance cognitions generally stem from a demand that reality must be as we want it to be. She identifies different types of intolerance beliefs:

  1. discomfort intolerance ("I can't stand the hassle")
  2. emotional intolerance ("I can't bear feeling anxious")
  3. entitlement ("I can't stand the lack of respect") and
  4. achievement perfectionism ("I can't stand having my goals frustrated") (Harrington, 2011).

An individual may suffer from any combination of these cognitions. Harrington (2011) identifies that what appear to be low self-confidence or perfectionistic cognitive styles are often actually masks for frustration intolerance cognitions used to avoid taking on tasks, which are seen as aversive and threatening.

Scherer (1987, 2001), in his sequential check theory of emotion-differentiation, has proposed a set of 13 cognitive appraisals, called Stimulus Evaluation Checks (SECs) that lead to different emotions. The SECs represent the minimal number of cognitive dimensions that Scherer considers necessary to differentiate emotions and which shape a person's cognitive experience of an emotion. Below is an example of Scherer's SECs applied to a frustrating situation. Research has demonstrated a link between a number of specific cognitions associated with increased frustration levels, many of which can be linked to Scherer's SECS which include:

  1. perceived lack of control (Brissett and Nowicki, 1973)
  2. abnormal fixations (Klee, 1944)
  3. withdrawal of expected extrinsic motivators (Perry, 1977)
  4. perceived unfairness (Cival, 2013)
  5. heightened distress (Mclean, 2007)
  6. expansive perceptions style (Davis and Ekwall, 1976)
  7. schizophrenia (Wilensky, (1952)
  8. goal attractiveness (Filer, 1952)
  9. perceived lack of resources or skill (Harter, 1978b)
  10. perceived powerlessness and isolation (Lewandowski, 2003 )
  11. infrequency of success (Thorndike, 1934)
  12. perceived external causal attributions (Sekiguchi et al, 2013).
Table 3. Scherer's 13 Stimulus Evaluation Checks (SECs) (Scherer; 1987, 2001)
Scherer's 13 Stimulus Evaluation Checks (SECs)
  • Relevance
    • Novelty – Has the environment changed in a significant way?
    • Intrinsic Pleasantness – Is the stimulus in and of itself good or bad?
    • Goal Relevance – Does it affect my ongoing activity?
  • Implications
    • Causal Attributions – Who or what has caused it to happen?
    • Outcome probability – How likely are the various outcomes of this change?
    • Expectation discrepancy – Does what has happened fit with my expectations?
    • Goal/Need Conduciveness – Does this help or hinder me?
  • Coping
    • Urgency – Is this something which has to be dealt with now?
    • Control – Can it be controlled (in principle)?
    • Power – Am I able to control it?
    • Adjustment – Can I adjust to the change it entails?
  • Normative Significance
    • External Standards – Does this fall short of, within, or exceeds my own external standards?

The "physiological" component of frustration[edit | edit source]

Hokanson and Burgess (1964) demonstrated that frustration increases arousal levels (with an increase in heart rate of 20 beats per minute). Frustration has been associated with:

  1. increased blood pressure (Lewis, Hitchcock & Sullivan; 2004; Jost, 1941)
  2. increased muscle tension (Jost, 1941)
  3. irregular breathing (Lewis, Hitchcock and Sullivan; 2004; Jost, 1941)
  4. suppressed brain Alpha brain waves (Jost, 1941), (alpha waves are normally associated with a relaxed-wakeful state); increased plasma corticosteroid levels (Dantzer, Amone, Mormede, 1980) (normally associated with a stress response).

The "purposive" component of frustration[edit | edit source]

Given that frustration relates to the achievement, or rather non-achievement, of a goal, then the most suitable context to establish the purposes and possible benefits of frustration is in the context of those theories related to goal-motivated behaviour such as operant conditioning, expectancy theory, and goal-setting theory.

The purpose of frustration in the context of operant conditioning theory[edit | edit source]

Extinction is the operant conditioning process of stopping ("extinguishing") previously rewarded behaviour (Powell, Honey & Symbaluk, 2013). This involves first conditioning a subject to expect certain rewards for certain behavours by establishing a stimulus-reward connection over numerous repetitions (operant conditioning), and then stopping the rewards for that behaviour (extinction). The subjects typically exhibit high levels of frustration and aggression when the previously rewarded behaviour goes unrewarded. Therefore, from an operant conditioning perspective, frustration can be seen to be caused by changing of the rules that we expect to be rewarded by, and serves to inform us that something about our environment has changed and that we should test the rules or paradigm that our reward (goal achievement) expectations were based upon.

Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference. - Serenity Prayer

The purpose of frustration in the context of expectancy theory[edit | edit source]

Expectancy theory proposes that there are two types of expectancies that contribute to an individual's perceived control over the achievement of a goal and hence their goal-oriented behaviour (Bandura, 1997). "Efficacy expectations" are those expectations about one's ability to perform the necessary actions to achieve a goal (e.g., practicing violin two hours a day). "Outcome expectations" are those expectations about the likelihood that our actions will be sufficient to achieve the goal (e.g., being accepted into music school). If there is doubt in either expectation, then the individual will perceive him/herself to have little control over the achievement of his/her goal and therefore will be unlikely to commence, or persist, in pursuing their goal. But what if the person believes that they do have the ability to direct their behaviour, and that that directed behaviour will produce the results they desire ... but they don't, and for some inexplicable reason they are failing? The experience of frustration would be caused by misjudging one's own abilities and/or their likelihood of success. Furthermore, it is implied that a number of assumptions must be made in making these initial estimations (e.g., available resources, help, and time) which may also be incorrect, causing even more frustration. The purpose of frustration then, from an expectancy theory perspective, would be to provide feedback that we need to improve our judgement regarding our abilities, the effort required to achieve a goal, and their underpinning assumptions.

The purpose of frustration in the context of goal-setting theory[edit | edit source]

Goal-setting motivates by highlighting the difference between the current state and an imagined desirable future state[factual?], similar to "discrepancy creation" above. However, according to goal-setting theory, not all goals motivate equally. Goals that are difficult and specific ("optimally challenging") motivate far more than goals that are too easy, difficult, or vague. Furthermore, goal-setting theory identifies the role of "feedback" (Erez, 1977) regarding progress towards the goal as being critical to the motivational benefits of goal-setting (Locke et al., 1981). Therefore, it is evident that frustration can be caused by setting goals that are too difficult (or too easy), or from a lack of apparent progress towards one's goals. In this case, frustration serves the purpose of providing feedback that the goal is too difficult, easy, or vague, or that progress towards the goal is not at the desired rate. Furthermore, frustration may even comprise a part of the feedback that motivates us towards our goal.

Table 4. Purposes of frustration
Purposes of frustration

Operant Conditioning

  • inform us that something about our environment has changed and that we should test the rules that our reward expectations were based upon

Expectancy Theory

  • To provide feedback that our self-efficacy estimation is poor (efficacy expectation).
  • To provide feedback that the task is more difficult than we thought (outcome expectataions).
  • To provide feedback that our fundamental assumptions underpinning our expectation estimations are flawed.

Goal-Setting Theory

  • To provide feedback that our goal is too difficult, too easy or just right.
  • To provide feedback that our goal is too vague, and that it needs to be better defined.
  • To provide feedback that our goal is worthwhile (a goal with no frustrations at all would arguably be of little value).
  • To provide motivational feedback.

The consequences of frustration[edit | edit source]

The immediate consequences of frustration[edit | edit source]

Research into operant conditioning extinction has lead to the development of a well documented understanding of the immediate consequences of extinction, which many researchers consider to be synonymous with acute frustration (Powell, Honey and Symbaluk, 2013). In frustrating extinction situations the subjects will progressively:

  1. try harder ("extinction burst"; also called the "frustration effect", Amsel and Hancock, 1957) through more vigorous attempts at the previously rewarded behaviour
  2. demonstrate increased variability of behaviour (Antonitis, 1951)
  3. exhibit emotional behaviour such as agitation (Zeiler, 1971) or aggression (Azrin, Hutchinson and Hake, 1966)
  4. demonstrate a resurgence of previously successful behaviours (Epstein, 1985) and
  5. temporary depression (Lewinson, 1974).
Table 5. Typical extinction frustration behaviour (Powell, Honey and Symbaluk, 2013).
Stages of typical extinction frustration
  1. Extinction Burst - A temporary increase in the frequency/intensity of responding when extinction is first implemented (e.g. hitting the button on the vending machine repeatedly with increased vigor).
  2. Increase in Variability of Behaviour - Try different behaviours in search of the reinforcer (e.g. try shaking the machine or sticking your arm inside it)
  3. Emotional Behaviour - Most commonly aggression and agitation.
  4. Resurgence of Previously Successful Behaviour - Behaviours that have been successful in obtaining reinforcement in the past.
  5. Depression - Usually associated with a decrease in activity.

The long-term consequences of frustration[edit | edit source]

In a famous study by Seligman and Maier (1967), they were able to induce a state of "learned helplessness" in dogs by placing them into a very frustrating situation. The dogs were initially placed into a box where they were unable to escape an electric shock. They soon learned to stop trying to avoid the pain and, even when the circumstances were changed so the dogs could escape, they did not take any avoidance action as they had "learned" that the situation was "helpless". Frustration is an inherently aversive experience, which if experienced too acutely or for too long a period, and without any apparent escape, is capable of providing sufficient aversive stimuli to cause a state of learned helplessness. Learned helplessness involves a lowered PLOC, avoidance behaviour, a reduction in goal pursuit, and depression (Seligman and Maier, 1967). Worker burnout has also been associated with long-term frustration (Lewandowski, 2003).

The group consequences of frustration[edit | edit source]

The same mechanisms as described have been argued by researchers to cause riots (Gill, 2001), terrorism (Ross, 1996), war (Stagner, 1941) and even religious zeal (McGregor, Nash, and Prentice, 2012)

Treating frustration[edit | edit source]

"... men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them ..."


Frustration can be quite dysfunctional if left unregulated as it can inhibit the pursuit of personal goals and can lead to aggression, learned helplessness and depression. However, there is a treatment for those who are particularly prone to experiencing frustration. Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) is arguably the most productive therapy for treating frustration-intolerance beliefs (Harrington, 2011). REBT is a type of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) based on the premise that it is our own self-defeating beliefs, cognitions and emotions that cause most of our psychological trauma and their associated dysfunctional behaviours (Ellis, 1994). It suggests that we can change our emotional experience of the world and our behaviour by changing our thinking, particularly by challenging absolute evaluative beliefs. Harrington (2011) claims that through her treatment approach (Table 6) that, although frustration is a fact of life and can never be eliminated entirely, that people who are susceptible to frustration due to frustration-intolerance beliefs can learn to live a healthy and goal achieving life.

Table 6. REBT for frustration-intolerance beliefs (Harrington, 2011).
Therapy for frustration-intolerance beliefs


  • Frustraton vs Self-Worth Beliefs - Need to distinguish frustration-intolerance beliefs from self-worth beliefs.
  • Identify Specific Frustration-Intolerance Beliefs - Need to determine the specific type of frustration-intolerance beliefs present:
  • Discomfort intolerance
  • Emotional intolerance
  • Entitlement
  • Achievement perfectionism

Gain Trust

  • Validation - Acknowledge the genuine difficulty of the client's situation
  • Empathy - Display empathy for the client's situation
  • Avoid Criticism - People with frustration-intolerance beliefs can be very sensitive to criticism.

Set Goals

  • Set Small Life Goals - Frustration-intolerance beliefs inhibit goal striving - so need to work towards reestablishing small goals.
  • Set Therapeutic Goals - Need to set therapeutic goals according to specific frustration-intolerance beliefs.

Cognitive Change

  • Disputing Musts - frustration-intolerance beliefs tend to be absolutes which can be reduced in strength through empirical, logical and pragmatic disputation:
  • Empirical Disputation - e.g. you say that it is too much to bear, but here you are, therefore it is not "too much"
  • Logical Disputation - e.g. you say you can't stand feeling like this, but here you are and you are ok.
  • Pragmatic Disputation - e.g. if you believe that jobs like this one are too hard, how will that shape your entire life? Is that a sustainable or useful belief?
  • Ideal/Real World Distinction - need to distinguish between the ideal and the real world, absolutes can exist in the ideal world ... but not the real world.

Behavioural Change

  • Behaviour Goals - that gradually desensitise to anxiety/panic situations.
  • Risk Taking Activities - to counter restricted lifestyle imposed by need for certainty, comfort and stress free.
  • Flooding - exposure to anxious situations until anxiety has decreased.
  • Courting Discomfort - opportunities to court frustration are everywhere and should be sought out.
  • Behavioural & Imagery Methods - breaking down tasks into management chunks, using rewards and penalties to motivate, and using imagery of negative situations to develop healthier behaviours.

Summary[edit | edit source]

Frustration is our subjective-experience, physiological, purposive and social-expressive response to the thwarting of a goal. It is often linked with feelings of aggression, anger and depression and its social-expressive components mirror those emotions. The physiological component is typical of a high arousal fight-or-flight response. The immediate consequences of frustration often include trying harder, trying something different, aggression, and eventually despair and giving up. The long-term effects of frustration can be dire with the development of low self-efficacy, low PLOC, burnout, depression, and learned helplessness.

Despite our inclination to think that circumstances cause our frustration, research suggests that our tendencies to experience frustration are derived more from innate internal factors including our temperament, perceptions, frustration-intolerance beliefs, attribution style, and emotion regulation abilities. However the good news is that REBT has been shown to help those who tend to experience frustration to change their frustration-intolerance beliefs and enable them to reduce their tendencies to experience frustration, removing the dysfunctional roadblocks that inhibit their goal-motivated behaviour.

In conclusion, most of us would tend to think of frustration like an ant at a picnic - an inconvenient parasite that we wish would go away. However, the reality is that a life without frustration would be very difficult indeed because the "purposive" component of frustration is absolutely essential to our ability to function in the real world. Without the feedback that frustration gives us we would continue on goals that are unachievable or continue with a current failing course of action rather than adjusting our strategy. Or we may continue to overestimate what we are capable of or underestimate the true difficulty in achieving worthwhile goals. In short, frustration, although much maligned, is an essential part of our life. In fact, it is quite apparent that it is our capacity to cope with and manage frustration that is arguably one of the single biggest determinants of the overall quality of our lives. It establishes the goals we are prepared to approach or avoid throughout our entire life, and therefore affects all aspects of our lives including sporting, education, occupation, income and family achievements. Therefore we must learn to recognise frustration when it creeps up on us, use the feedback that it is attempting to whisper in our ear to our advantage and move forward effectively, rather then give into the fit of rage that is so easy to do. And for sufferers of chronic sensitivity to frustration, there is still the promise of a healthy, happy, accomplishment-filled future through the therapy offered by REBT. Good luck harnessing your frustration.

Quiz[edit | edit source]

1 Question 1: What are the elements of a frustrating situation?

A motivating goal.
Expectations about the achievement of a goal.
Resistance or opposition.
All of the above.

2 Question 2: According to Izard (1993), what are the four-components of an emotion?

"Subjective experience", "cognitive", "purposive", and "social-expressive".
"Subjective experience", "physiological", "purposive", and "social-expressive".
"Biological", "physiological", "purposive", and "social-expressive".
"Subjective experience", "physiological", "purposive", and "socially-aggrivating".

3 Question 3: The main purpose of frustration is to ... ?

... tick me off so I'm ready to fight.
... provide "feedback" that I should rethink my strategy.
... get my blood pumping so I can hit my boss.
... make me angry and throw my computer across the room.

4 Question 4: The signs that I might be getting frustrated include?

Anger, aggression or agitation induced by resistance to trying to achieve something.
Trying harder, by going harder and/or faster.
Lashing out at machines or equipment that I believe are stopping me.
All of the above.

5 Question 5: One therapeutic treatment that has been shown to work for frustration-sensitive people is?

Reasonably Elementary Goal Therapy (REGT)
Irrational Obstructed Goal Therapy (IOGT)
Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT)
Nothing works for frustration, that's why it's so frustrating.


See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

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