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.
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.
I wrote about the four major goals in life on my psychology today blog quite some time back and want to revisit it today in the light of reading Susan Wolf‘s ‘Meaning in life and why it matters’ which is a very accessible and engaging, as well as a short, read.
Susan Wolf claims that there are two usual suspects when it comes to explaining our major striving and actions. The reason why we do something may be to enhance our self-interest (the egoistic principle) or the reasons may lie in ethical and moral considerations (the altruistic principle). In the former case we are driven by an overarching goal of maximizing happiness (for ourselves) and in the latter case we are driven by moral principles that are impartial and do not lace any special emphasis on our own interests. For example, if we are utilitarian in our ethics, we may be driven by the moral imperative of maximizing happiness(utility) of maximum people/ entities.
Thus, happiness and morality are two important goals/ value systems and the corresponding reliance on self-interest or impartial moral imperatives, respectively, makes us decide on our course of action. However, she also claims that this picture is far from complete. Not all our reasons are reasons of self-interest or morality, but some are reasons of love.
To illustrate by way of an example, consider the fact that I may care for my wife when she is sick. Now, this act is neither purely due to self-interest nor can it be considered purely a moral act- there may be better ways of acting morally- maybe some other sick man deserves my help more. But I care for her out of love. And caring for her provides and adds meaning to my life.
Thus, Susan introduces a third phenomena in the mix – meaningfulness. When people act out of reasons of love they make their life meaningful. Now as per Susan this acting out of reasons of love could be love directed towards a person or towards an activity. Thus I may be passionate about psychology or blogging and may devote my life to such an activity and as that activity provides me fulfillment and also adds value to the world, it is meaningful. Her definition of meaningfulness is where subjective attraction meet objective value- you find something or some person worthy of your love (attractive) and are drawn towards it such that you engage in such a way as to make a positive contribution/ difference.
Meaning as per Susan is due to reasons of love -either for a person or an activity -she doesn’t distinguish between the two, and in my opinion causes some confusion. IMHO, its important to make a distinction between acting out of love for a person and acting out of love of an activity. Also she mentions two conceptualization of meaning- one driven by feelings of fulfillment and the other by getting involved in something bigger than oneself.
How does all this relate to the four major goals I have talked about previously? To recap, the goals are:
- Happiness (maximizing pleasure and ‘self’ focus)
- Morality/Integrity (living morally and ‘group’/community focus)
- Meaning (living authentically and ‘other’/ family focus)
- Success (making an impact and ‘task’/ work focus)
Susan has already delineated how happiness and morality are the two primary reasons for our actions, and she introduced meaning as the third major one; however, imho meaning (living authentically in accordance with ones values ) needs to be differentiated from living successfully or making an impact in the world. Meaning is intimately tied to others- our lives can never be meaningful out of context- they are meaningful only in relation to others appraisal of them as such and also our appraisal of them as such. Meaning is inter-subjective. It lies in between. If happiness can be deemed more or less subjective (only you can know if you are truly happy) and success as more or less objective (there can be objective criteria on which to measure the success of a life) , meaning is more about a common inter-subjective appraisal (whether both parties found the interaction meaningful). I caring for my wife is meaningful both to me and to my wife and its power lies in that inter-subjectivity. Morality on the other hand can be said to be neither objective nor subjective but transcending all.
Thus, while happiness can only be known from a first person perspective, and success judged accurately only from third person perspective, perhaps meaning can be formulated best from a second person perspective – that of the other!
Interestingly, while happiness is more about living in the present, and success more about what you have already achieved in the past, Meaning in my view is directed towards the future- if I am engrossed in meaningful relationship or project, I am looking forward to how the relationship or the project grows. For example, to sensitize my clients to the importance of meaningfulness, I ask them to think about their epithet or what they would like to be written on their tombstone- this exercise inevitably makes them reflect on what is actually meaningful to pursue (relationships) and what can be ignored or de-emphasized (workaholism) .
in summary, we are driven by four types of reasons or motivations – reasons of self-interest, reasons of morality/altruism, reasons of love for individuals and reasons of engrossment in activities/ projects. Thus the four major goals of life worth striving for Happiness, Morality, Meaning and Success!
PS: you may also like my Times of India blog post about differentiating happiness from meaning.
We all want to excel in life and various psychological constructs have been proposed that can help us in this mission. These range from grit(mostly used in academic domain) to PsyCap (mostly used in work domain) to the concept of deliberate practice (mostly used in niche domains).
Grit has been proposed to be made up of passion and perseverance; passion itself being made up of investment of time and effort regularly in activities that one finds important, loved and self-defining (i.e. one identifies one’s self with the passionate activity).
So with so many constructs floating around which ones are basic and which ones derivative?
I propose the following eight basic psychological constructs, which if focused upon can lead to well-being and success in life:
- Purpose: Everyone should start with defining their life purpose. Once defined, it provides a general direction and decision-pulse for all your decisions, actions etc. It is the super-ordinate goal of your life and all other goals should be subordinate and aligned to this. A firm commitment to this purpose provides the motivation/ drive to achieve and flourish. This acts as the ‘narrow’ polarity of the fundamental four ABCD model by restricting our choices, once purpose is determined and defined. This is the end goal.
- Pathways : If purpose is the end goal, pathways are the means or subordinate goals and strategies to achieve that super-ordinate goal. It enables one to flexibly take stock of the progress towards the end goal and adjust or change the means goal to continue momentum towards the end goal. As Angela Duckworth says ‘ “Go, go, go until you can’t go anymore…then turn left.” This acts as the ‘broad’ polarity of the fundamental four ABCD model by expanding our repertoire of responses.
- Positive narratives: We all tell stories to ourselves and our view of past is not objective but actively constructed. And its better to tell positive stories to ourselves than otherwise. This is related to learned optimism. As per Seligman, one should make stable, internal and pervasive/ generic attributions about positive events and temporary, external and specific attributions about negative events. This eventually enables us to have a positive image of our abilities in the past and leads to hope and self confidence that we will be able to achieve in future too. This is related to ‘other’ polarity: how we interpret what happens to us via others .
- Positive self-belief: Call it confidence, call it self-efficacy or call it even agency ; this is belief in one’s own ability and efforts to lead to positive outcomes. This is obviously related to ‘self’ and is cognitive in nature.
- Perseverance: This is being in for the long haul. When set upon achieving a goal, time is not a constraint, and one would continue investing time into the pursuit; if setbacks happen, one rebounds or emerges more determined. One does not change one’s goal or strategy easily. This is also related to resilience. This is ‘passive ‘ polarity as one reacts to setbacks / obstacle when they happen, but otherwise just continues investing time and energy. This is behavioral in nature.
- Practice: This is ensuring that efforts are not a constraint when it comes to achieving the goal. One is willing to work hard to archive ones goals and one actively and regularly and diligently puts in that effort. This again is ‘active’ and behavioral in nature. The willingness to put in hard work can again be developed like other constructs.
- Passion: This is not the regular definition of passion; by passion here I mean a consistency of interests and a fascination with a subject. It includes things like not getting distracted or waylaid by competing interests and also not letting you interest wane or fade over the time. It is obviously related to emotions and is the ‘pain’ polarity as an obsessive passion may sometime lead to pain.
- Playfulness: This is about having a playful attitude when working towards your goals; it includes things like enthusiasm towards the goal, enjoying the journey by having flow experiences and being engaged and curious. This too is emotional in nature and is related to ‘pleasure’ polarity.
Some other construct are a composite of these; hope is a composite and so is deliberate practice or resilience.
Similarly, there are other constructs like task commitment ( like perseverance, endurance, hard work, but also self-confidence, perceptiveness and a special fascination with a special subject) which cover almost all of these.
I believe the above has great utility and can be a good framework for studying non-ability , non-personality factors that lead to exceptional performance. I am excited and look forward to other people adopting this model for their research and conceptualizations.