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.