Emotions as a Result of Approach and Avoidance

There is a powerful theory in psychology, proposed by Carver and Scheier, about how emotions arise as an indication of how we are progressing towards our goals. Today’s post will be elaborating and extending on that model.

Basically this cybernetic theory of emotions, is based on that fact that most of our actions are goal directed, we are either trying to archive a desired end state / goal; or we are trying to avoid an undesirable end-state or anti-goal. The same action or overt behavior may be motivated by different goal related orientation. For e.g., a student studying for a test may be driven to achieve the highest possible marks so that he can top in the class; or he may be motivated to study hard to avoid failing in the test.

The former motivation where one is driven to achieve some goal is categorized as an approach behavior and the corresponding system the approach system.  The latter drive, where one is more focused on moving as far away from a negative outcome as possible is known as the avoidance system.

Foraging for food, maybe an approach system action, while avoiding being eaten by a predator may be an avoidance system action.

Progress in both the systems , i.e moving towards the goal in approach system and moving away from the anti-goal in the avoidance system leads to positive outcomes or end results. The failure to achieve the goal or avoid the anti-goal leads to negative outcomes. So far so good.

At this point Carver and Scheier introduce the feedback control concept. We will take the example of Approach system. Lets say we are moving towards a goal at rate ‘r’ (how fast we are moving from our current sate to the desired state); they suggest that each of us has an internal criteria of how fast that movement should be. In situations which are familiar to us, this is more or less stable value, say ‘a’; but in situations where we have little experience there is a lot of room for flexibility in what this criterion rate ‘a’ should be.

What they suggest is that if the actual rate at which we are moving towards the goal ‘r’ is less than the criterion rate ‘a’, then we feel negative emotions like sadness/ frustration/ anger that are an indication to us to increase our efforts towards the goal (as we are falling behind); on the other hand if the actual rate ‘r’ is greater than the criterion rate ‘a’ then we feel positive emotions like joy, love, care etc, which is a signal to us that we can coast or reduce efforts allotted to this particular goal and maybe move to some other task (because this task is already faring well).

The same applies to avoidance system;   if r<a then we would feel negative emotions like fear, anxiety, guilt and if r>a then we will feel positive emotions like calmness, relief etc.

They also relate the emotion felt, with re-prioritization of the task that evokes the emotion. As they rightly discover, anger/frustration and sadness have opposite effects on effort as well as task prioritization, though both are an indication that we are not progressing towards the goal at desired rate. Frustration/ anger makes one redouble efforts and also leads to increases in the priority of task, Sadness however, that is associated when the goal has become unreachable or lost, makes one reduce efforts and decrease the importance or priority of the goal thus making it easy to give up the goal. They explain it as non-linear impact of progress towards goal.

IMHO, they go some distance, but do not go far enough. Below is what I believe makes sense:

  1. In the Approach system, when r<a, then one feels frustration or anger (if goal is interpersonal) , which indicates that goal requires efforts, which leads to more effort spending and increase in priority of the task.  Thus, when things are not going well, but are manageable it leads to frustration/ anger and more focus on the task
  2. In the Approach system,  when r << a , that is rate of progress is much, much less than the criteria, or one is very close to failure, then one feels sadness or depression, which indicates that goal is no longer tenable, which leads to less effort spending and decrease in priority of the task. Thus, when things are out of hand, it leads to sadness/ depression and reduced efforts and focus.
  3. In the Approach system, when r>a, then one feels passion or commitment (love if goal is interpersonal), and contrary to what Carver and Schieier suggest, leads to more efforts towards the goal and increase in priority of the goal. Thus, when things are going well, but are barely manageable, one redoubles ones efforts and is generally in the passionate/ commitment/ care zone.
  4. In the Approach system, when r>>a , that is rate of progress is so high that one is almost guaranteed to succeed, then one ends up feeling joy, and starts coasting and reducing efforts, starting looking for other opportunities, and thus decrease in priority of current task. Thus, when things are going strongly in your favor of achieving goal, it leads to happiness/ joy and coasting.
  5. In the Avoidance system, when r<a, then one feels fear or anxiety, which indicates that avoiding goal requires more efforts, which leads to more effort spending and increase in priority of the task.  Thus, when things are not going well, but are manageable it leads to fear/ aanxiety and more focus on the task.
  6. In the Avoidance system,  when r << a , that is rate of avoidance is much, much less than the criteria, or one is very close to reaching the anti-goal, then one feels guilt or disgust, which indicates that anti-goal is no longer avoidable, which leads to less effort spending and decrease in priority of the task. Thus, when things have gone out of hand, it leads to disgust/  and uncomfortable acceptance of the situation (the feeling you get when you already failed the test)
  7. In the Avoidance system, when r>a, then one feels interest or courage, and contrary to what Carver and Schieier suggest, leads to more efforts towards avoiding the anti-goal and increase in priority of the anti-goal. Thus, when things are going well, but are barely manageable, one redoubles ones efforts and is generally in the interested/ courageous/ calm zone.
  8. In the Avoidance system, when r>>a , that is rate of avoidance is so high that one is almost guaranteed to escape, then one ends up feeling wonder/ gratitude, and starts coasting and reducing efforts, starting looking for other dangers, and thus decrease in priority of current task. Thus, when things are going strongly in your favor of your avoiding the anti-goal, it leads to wonder/gratitude/ relief and vigilance.

The beauty of Carver and Shcheier model is their differentiation between an Approach system and an Avoidance system and how success or frustration in these systems have different emotional consequences. These are also conceptually related to promotion and prevention focus of Higgins et al.

I am excited by the above model as it aligns well with the eight basic emotions model and I hope this new extension of Carver and Scheier model will lead to much more empirical work in the field.

Evolution of the 4 Emotion Dimensions

PAD is a popular dimensional theory of emotions, whereby all emotions can be classified on three dimensions: Pleasure (Pleasant- Unpleasant), Arousal (Ready-Relaxed), and Dominance (Control- Lack of control). To this model has been added a fourth dimension called Predictability (Ambiguous- Certain) (please see my earlier post for why this fourth dimension is relevant).

Manga emotions

Manga emotions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As an example, anger and fear are both unpleasant emotions, but angry person is in control (has high dominance) while a fearful person is not in control of the situation.

Similarly, both contentment and excitement are pleasant emotions, but the former is low arousal and the latter high arousal.

Thus, emotions differ on four basic dimensions. I’ll address each of these dimensions below:

Pleasure (pleasant – unpleasant). This is similar to pleasure-pain polarity as highlighted by Millon and works at the Affective level in the ABCD model. The pleasure polarity addresses the physiological needs (Maslow’s hierarchy, see here) for maintaining body, while the pain polarity ensures that we stay out of harm’s way and take care of our safety needs. If one were to measure well-being related to this dimension, the appropriate measure would be something like PANAS, a difference between your positive affect and negative affect. In a nutshell, this is characterized by in-the-moment feelings and if your needs are met here, you live a happy life in the hedonic sense. The existential challenge would be body-givennenss and what to do given the body- a potential answer being – survive and protect body integrity.

This dimension, related to feelings, may have evolved to help our bodies/genes survive. If something leads to unpleasant emotions, avoid it; if it leads to pleasant emotions, indulge and approach!


Arousal (Ready-Relaxed): This is similar to the active-passive polarity as highlighted by Millon and works at the Behavioral level of ABCD model. The active polarity, which is related to being excited/ inspired, addresses the self-actualization needs of Maslow’s, while the passive polarity, which may be related to tranquility/ calmness/ meditation etc is related to transcendence needs.  If one were to measure well-being related to this dimension, the appropriate measure would be something like Ryff’s Psychological well-being measuring things like psychological growth etc.  This dimension may be related to living authentically in this world and experiencing life to the fullest. The existential challenge relevant here would be how to cope with a meaningless/ absurd world. The answer may lie in living life fully and experiencing it deeply.

This emphasis on experience is related to the ‘experience’ component of consciousness (recall that consciousness is made up of two parts- experience and agency).  This dimension of emotion, related to energy/ experience, may have evolved to give the emotion a vibrant and vivid tone.  That vibrancy may be required if after gaining a  mind, we can retain it i.e. remain sane.


Predictability (Ambiguous- Certain): This is similar to the broad-narrow polarity as highlighted by Millon, and works at the cognitive level of ABCD model. The broad polarity, which is ambiguous and amorphous, is related to the Aesthetic and beauty needs of Maslow, while the narrow polarity to Knowledge and understanding needs. If one were to measure well-being related to this perhaps Satisfaction with Life survey might work. This dimension is related to attracting mates (both beauty and brains are attractive) and perhaps reproduction. The existential challenge here may be Death and the answer may be transcending death by leaving progeny. Cognitive abilities allow one to reflect on one’s own death and this leads to obsession with procreation. Intelligence (and beauty) associated with this dimension may be a result of sexual selection.

This dimension, associated with intelligence, may have evolved to help out bodies/ genes replicate. To figure if a mate is the best possible mate, and to attract / coax it, one may need intelligence and beauty.


Dominance (Control/ Lack of control): This is similar to self-other polarity, related to Drive level of ABCD.  The Self polarity is associated with self-esteem needs while the Other polarity with Belonging needs. Another way to conceptualize the same polarity is on interpersonal dimension of competence and warmth. If one were to measure well-being related to this dimension, the appropriate measure would be something like Key’s Scoial well-being measuring things like social trust. This dimension is related to controlling/ influencing others either via power or via love. The existential given here is Isolation and the solution is domination and control through exercising one’s ego. Agency/ ego/self may be important here. the issue whether we have control or nor makes this a part of moral domain too.

This dimension, associated with ego, may have evolved to spread the memes associated with the ego far and wide.


In essence, while Feelings and Intelligence are more closely related to evolution (survival and reproduction) of our physical bodies, Agency and Experience are more closely related to the evolution of our minds.

Emotions and Personality: Take 8

I am currently reading ‘Emotions in the practice of psychotherapy‘ by Robert Plutchik and have been finding it a good read. In it Plutchik elaborates on his famous psycho-evolutionary theory of emotions that led to the circumplex and the Plutchik wheel of emotions. Basically, Plutchik argues that emotions can be classified on three dimensions- intensity, similarity and polarity (complementarity) and if one were to focus on similarity and polarity one can find eight basic or primary emotions, with other emotions either being a blend of the primary emotions or differing in intensity.

Cover of "Emotions in the Practice of Psy...

Cover via Amazon

An example will help clarify: if one takes anger as a basic emotion then emotions like rage, fury or irritation, annoyance differ in their intensity from anger; likewise when two emotions like disgust and anger are co-present, then one may feel the emotion of hatred/hostility, which is a secondary emotion.

Long-term readers of this blog will know that I am sympathetic towards the basic emotions concept and also believe that their are eight basic emotions; the eight basic emotions identified by me are same as those by Plutchik though the polarity aspect varies slightly.  For e.g., I believe the right polarity combinations are Fear-Interest; Sadness- Joy; Anger – Love; and Disgust- Surprise. Note that Plutchik considers Anger-Fear to be opposites and believes that Love is not basic but a blend of Joy and Acceptance.

Plutchik believes, and I have been arguing in my series of posts on emotions and personality, that emotions and personality are intimately connected and that regular/ habitual emotional experiences/ states lead to enduring related personality traits. Also having a particular personality trait likewise increases the probability of experiencing a particular emotion predominately. Thus there is a string bidirectional linkages between the emotional states one finds oneself in and personality traits one has.

Emotions evolved because they helped us survive and thrive. They are related to particular contingencies or features of the situation and help prime action tendencies that effectively deal with those situations to restore one towards homeostatic state (in case of negative emotions) or move towards flourishing and growth (in case of positive emotions). Personality or stable differences in emotional, behavioral, cognitive and motivational responding evolved as it enabled different persons to adapt to different niches of the (social) environment. Personality disorders evolved when things were taken to an extreme or their were unresolved conflicts related to the corresponding emotions.

English: Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions

English: Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We will look at emotions and corresponding personality disorders to delineate the relationship between personality and emotions.

Examples will make this clear.

Consider Fear. Fear evolved whenever Danger was present and primed the action tendency to Escape/ withdraw/ protect. Or consider Sadness that evolved in relation to a significant Loss and primed the action tendencies towards Reintegrating or gaining social support or renegotiating. Anger evolved in situations where Obstacles impeded progress or goal achievement and primed the action tendencies of Destruction of that obstacle or aggressiveness in social situations. Disgust evolved when faced with Unpalatable or harmful object priming the action tendency to Reject that object, be it physical or social.

Positive emotions have similar situational triggers and similar action tendencies.

Now, Plutchik also looked at personality disorders, their co-morbidity in patients and the similarity ratings by experts for personality disorders, that were factor analyzed, to lead to a circumplex structure of personality disorders. This structure could clearly delineate which personality disorders were similar and clustered together. Remember this clustering is based on actual empirical data and not arbitrary like the clusters defined by DSM.

Plutchik listed three clusters; but I could make out four clusters based on theoretical rationale as well as inspection of the circumplex.

The four clusters of personality disorders are :

  • Cluster A: Avoidant, Self-Defeating and Dependent personality disorders.
  • Cluster B: Dysthemic, Borderline, Histrionic and Hypomanic (this is not there in Plutchik circumplex)
  • Cluster D: Antisocial, Narcissistic, Sadistic and Passive-aggressive
  • Cluster C: Schizoid, Schizotypal, Paranoid and Obsessive-compulsive.

This brings me to my ABCD model, especially as applied to personality. To extend it to above relationship between emotions and personality disorders, I will make a point that Fear-Interest emotional dimension is related to Cluster A (Affect based) personality disorders, Sadness-Joy to cluster B (Behavioral), Anger-Love to cluster D (Dynamic/Social) and Disgust-Surprise to Cluster C (Cognitive).

Consider Avoidant and Self-defeating personality disorders – they are clearly related to (social) withdrawal, escape etc. and thus to Fear;  Dependent can be related to lack of Interest.

Dysthemic and Borderline are clearly related to reintegration/ renegotiation etc and thus to sadness; Histrionic and Hypomanic are clearly related to problems with Joy/ Activity.

Sadistic and Passive-aggressive are related to destructiveness (either overt or covert) and related to anger; Narcissistic (too much self love) and Anti-Social (no love for society)  are problems with Love/compassion.   Taken together the four personality traits related to above like Sadism, Machiavellianism,  Psychopathy and Narcissism make the Dark Tetrad.

Lastly, Paranoid and Obsessive-compulsive are related to getting rid of something undesirable (external conspirators or internal thoughts) and possibly related to disgust.  Schizoid and Schizotypal may on the other hand be related to Surprise.

If one were to continue extending the circumplex and extrapolate from emotions and personality disorders circumplex, one would arrive at the same ABCD structure of personality that I arrived from other considerations.

In essence, Fear is related to Neuroticism personality trait which is related to Avoidant and self-defeating personality disorders. Interest is related to eXtraversion trait and Dependent personality disorder.

Sadness is related to Conscientiousness trait and Dsythemic and Borderline disorders. Joy with Impulsive Sensation Seeking trait and Histrionic and Hypomanic disorder.

Anger is related to Agreeableness trait and Sadistic and Passive-aggressive disorders while Love is related to Honesty/Humility trait and Antisocial and Narcissistic disorders.

Finally, Disgust is related to Imagination trait and Paranoid and obsessive -compulsive disorders; while surprise is related to Openness to Experience trait and Schizoid and Schizotypal disorders.

To me, the above seems conclusive and makes immense sense. The cluster A disorders (as I have defined them, not the DSM ones) are primarily disorders of Affect; Cluster B of Behavior , Cluster C of cognition while cluster D of motives or are interpersonal in nature. This to me is an important theoretical advancement and should be followed up with empirical work.

Different Frames, Different Outcomes, Different Emotions

Most readers I presume are familiar with the work of Kahneman and Tversky on how statements framed in either loss or gain lead to different outcomes; however this is not a post about prospect theory. Instead this is about a different type of framing: whether the goals you set for yourself are in terms of approach or avoidance, and is loosely based around the work of AJ Elliot as also that of Higgins around prevention and promotion focus.

English: Emotions Q-sort

English: Emotions Q-sort (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One can set an approach goal or a goal with promotion focus (I’m using these interchangeably in this post though there are important theoretical differences) wherein one is very much focused on achieving a positive outcome. Or one could set an avoidance goal or a goal with prevention focus whereby one is overtly focused on not achieving or ending up in a negative state.

To illustrate by way of an example, if I am studying and appearing for an exam in near future, I may phrase my approach goal as ‘I want to pass in this exam’ or I may phrase my avoidance goal as ‘I don’t want to fail in this exam’. From a lay reading both goals may seem equivalent but they are not. They have different repercussions in terms of emotions felt while pursuing the goals etc.

Research has also shown that some people have a more approach oriented temperament and other more avoidance or preventive focused.

Avoidance goals are typically related to your fears and anxieties while approach goals to what you look forward to and are excited about.

Consider a scenario where you don’t currently have any overarching, activated goal. If you frame this lack of goals in avoidance terms that ‘I don’t have anything to be worried about’ you are likely to feel calm; on the other hand phrasing it as ‘I don’t have anything to look forward to’ will lead to you likely feeling bored.

Thus, while presence of an avoidance goal leads to fear, an absence of the same leads to calm; the presence of an approach goal leads to excitement/ Interest/ curiosity while the absence of same leads to boredom.

Another important theory by Carver and Scheier stresses the emergence of emotions as indicators of progress towards goals- with positive emotions arising if you are making progress toward the goal and negative emotions if you are not making sufficient progress.

Applying the same to the two different framing of goals, if you are progressing towards an approach goal say ‘I am likely to pass the exam’ you are likely to feel quite happy about the fact; however if you are far from achieving the approach goal say ‘I am unlikely to pass the exam’, you may become sad. Similarly, if you are progressing well towards an avoidance goal (‘I am likely to not fail’) you may feel relief; while if you are not making progress towards the avoidance goal (‘I am likely to fail’ ) then you will feel much stress.

Next consider the avoidance/ approach goal to be framed in zero-sum or non-zero sum game terms. A zero sum game is where if one person wins then the other loses; a non zero sum game is where there can be multiple winners and nobody’s payoff gets diminished due to others winning.

A zero sum avoidance game sees either winner or loser in a social situation and believes that the only way to not fail is to not let others succeed too and may phrase its goal like ‘I don’t want to be the loser’.  This may justifiably lead to feelings of anger and aggression when interacting socially with other con-specifics while trying to pursue this goal; On the other hand a  non-zero sum avoidance goal assumes that it is possible that everyone may fail or everyone may win and the attitude is more compassionate towards con-specifics who are all suffering and focused on not failing. The phrasing of goal is slightly different ‘I don’t want to be a loser’.

A zero sum approach game again sees either a winner or a loser in any social interaction but is focused on winning ‘I want to be the winner’ . This leads to justifiable competitiveness; a non zero sum reading of the same situation ‘I want to be a winner’ leads to much more altruistic and kind emotions and behaviors.

I can vouch for this from personal experience too- when I was preparing for JEE I just wanted to be one of the top 100 and did not look at my friends who were also preparing as competitors but as collaborators- because I wanted to be ‘a’ winner, not ‘the’ winner.

The last set of emotions tied to these different framing are when one either satisfactorily completes the avoidance/ approach goal or fails to do so.

Consider satisfactory completion of an avoidance goal- ‘I did not fail’ – because the initial goal if farmed negatively one may be surprised at the results; if however on does fail one may be filled with disgust.

Satisfactory completion of an approach goal – ‘I passed’ may lead to feelings of wonder/ awe/ gratitude while unsatisfactory completion or failure- I did not pass’  may lead to feelings of shock etc.

Thus, I believe there are at least 16 different types of emotional responses eight tied to approach goals and eight to avoidance goals- approach goals related emotions are excitement/ boredom; happiness/sadness; competition/ kindness; and wonder/ shock. Avoidance related emotions are fear/ calm; relief/ stress; aggression/ compassion ; and disgust/ surprise.

This of course is based on theory as well as my reading of some empirical work done on emotions related to approach/ avoidance. However, there is a lot of scope for additional research to validate these predictions- I hope someone out there does do some research around this framework.

Stress causes negative emotions – are you NUTS?

Stress has been defined in many ways – one conceptualization that I find powerful and useful is the NUTS framework developed by Dr. Sonia Lupien. As per it, stress results when one or more of the following four ingredients are present in a situation.

NOVELTY Something new you have not experienced before
UNPREDICTABILITY Something you had no way of knowing it would occur
THREAT TO THE EGO Your competence as a person is called into question
SENSE OF CONTROL You feel you have little or no control over the situation
English: Emotions Q-sort

English: Emotions Q-sort (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These conditions need not be aversive for the situation or event to feel stressful. For example, a person who is recently promoted may feel stress because of the new responsibilities that are novel and maybe he has no real option of declining the promotion, so he has little control too in the matter. Or consider the birth of a new born. So both positive and negative life events may lead to stress and maybe its more about how you are appraising stressful event.

If you are appraising a Novel event as a disruption of schedule/ comfort you will probably feel disgust; if you are appraising the same event as an opportunity to explore new stuff, you will most probably feel surprise / wonder. Its also conceivable that those high in the personality trait of Openness to experience may have more positive appraisals.

Similarly, an unpredictable situation may result in sadness if the unpredictability of rewards/ stimuli is attributed to deficits in self. If however, the unpredictability of situation is attributed to luck or external circumstances one may be more at ease and feel joy or happiness (note that ‘hap’ means luck). Its likely that those who are more Extraverted have a more positive appraisal.

A threat to ego or self may lead to feelings of fear and anxiety if the threat is considered unmanageable. On the other hand if the threat is considered manageable, it will result in the emotion of courage and facing the issue rather than running away. Those high in emotional stability (vs Neuroticism) are likely to show more positive appraisals.

Lastly, when one is in a situation that provides little options of control, one may feel anger if one is in a dominating frame of mind and needs control. On the other hand, one may feel love or compassion if one is ready to voluntarily give up control and submit oneself in the service of other. Agreeableness may mediate the relation with positive appraisals.

So as Kelly McGonigal has pointed out stress by itself is not bad; its how you appraise stressful circumstances that may be the key to suffering and wilting or rejoicing and flourishing.

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