Approach Versus Avoidance

Approach versus avoidance refers to the inner conflict occurring when individuals have a single goal or intention that is simultaneously appealing (making them want to approach or pursue) and unpleasant (making them want to avoid or pull back).

Approach motives, the desire to move toward a specific goal, are also called appetitive or rewarding. Avoidance motives, the desire to move away from that same goal, are referred to as punishing or aversive. An example of approach versus avoidance is the desire to successfully complete a public speaking assignment in a core class (approach) and at the same time dreading completing the assignment due to fear of possibly performing poorly, engendering potential public humiliation before peers and teacher (avoidance). When the desire to approach the goal is as strong as the desire to move away from it, individuals feel balanced or experience equilibrium. The closer the individual comes to the goal, the greater the internal conflict.


Something that reduces or suppresses a behavior.
The degree of attractiveness a person, activity, or object has as a behavioral goal.

The approach-versus-avoidance conflict has been studied since the early Greek philosophers Democritus (460–370 BC) and Aristippus (435–356 BC), who believed that the search for pleasure and the avoidance of pain were the fundamental motivations for human behavior.

William James (1842–1910) referred to the principles of approach and avoidance as representations of pleasure and pain. Pleasure is a reinforcer of behavior whereas pain is an inhibitor. Psychological theorist Kurt Lewin (1890–1947) believed that a system (region) in the person is said to be in a state of tension whenever a need or intention exists. A positive or negative valence is the attraction or repulsion that a region in the psychological environment has for someone. He theorized that “goal-objects in the life space possess positive valences that attract and negative valences that repel.” He hypothesized that the presence of positive and negative valences was directly related to the behavioral tendencies to approach or avoid an object or goal. The principles of approach and avoidance as motivators for behavior have provided much of the foundation for personality and social psychology.

See also Aversive conditioning ; Avoidance learning ; Maslow's hierarchy of needs; Motivation ; Motivational theories; Pavlovian conditioning.



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Deaux, Kay, and Mark Snyder. The Oxford Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

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Aupperle, Robin L. “Neural Systems Underlying Approach and Avoidance in Anxiety Disorders.” Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 12, no. 4 (December 2010): 517–31.

Veling, H., K. I. Ruys, and H. Aarts. “Anger as a Hidden Motivator: Associating Attainable Products with Anger Turns Them into Rewards.” Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3, no. 4 (July 2012): 438–45.


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