Approach Motivation and Avoidance Motivation

Approach Motivation

“Approach motivation” and “avoidance motivation” are two motivation techniques which help better define motivation. They are very simple and help me see my reason for taking action in a more complete way. Approach motivation is simply taking action because you desire something ‘good’ to come into your life. Avoidance motivation is doing (or not doing) something to avoid what you think is ‘bad’.

Approach Motivation

Think of approach motivation as taking action for anything that gives you happiness, pleasure, or joy. This can also be viewed as achievement motivation. This can include spending time with a girlfriend/boyfriend or husband/wife, eating a food you really like, watching a movie that inspires you, exercising, spending time with loved ones, or simply relaxing on a warm day, just to name a few. When you picture something – or a state of being – that you really want, motivation to make it a reality is often a logical next step.

However, approach motivation is not without an opposing force. Have you ever really wanted something, thought about it intently, but never taken the action to make it a reality? This leads me into the next classification of motivation.

Avoidance Motivation

Avoidance motivation is taking (or not taking) action to avoid something unpleasant. Think of it like this. A woman is really interested in getting to know a man she likes. He’s smart, good looking, and kind. She doesn’t know him very well. She’s a little shy and has a hard time approaching people. She really likes this guy, but there is a problem. She believes she will get rejected, make a fool of herself, or do something ridiculous. As such, she never approaches the guy. Her avoidance strategy is to just never try.

The question to ask here is, “Which pull is the stronger of the two, the desire for connection, or the need to avoid rejection?” Unfortunately, the desire to avoid rejection or what one would perceive as a negative outcome often overtakes the potential for a positive outcome. Since there is no guarantee of a successful result from talking to this man, the woman plays it safe and never takes the step.

The conflict of approach avoidance motivation

I can totally relate to the scenario of the woman mentioned here. Not because I face her situation, but because there are other life scenarios which dictate the action I take (as of April 2010). There have been times I have NOT exercised because I attributed more pain/discomfort with exercise at that moment than the gain of health, strength, and fitness from it.

I also stay at my full time job because I want to avoid the potential problem of no ‘set’ income and health insurance and losing a house with a family – even though leaving it could lead to a glorious new path for our family.

And my job pays well! I work with awesome people and it allows me to provide for my family. So there is a ‘double whammy’ here of approach and avoidance motivation to overcome. This is a special case. I would have to give up something great for something even greater. What a challenge! But generally the avoidance motivation is all that must be surpassed to take action.

The conflict of approach and avoidance motivation can be frustrating. How often do you face a decision and back off because you are afraid of the potential harm or rejection or temporary struggle it might entail? What about moving away from something that is providing for you? I know I face these challenges on a consistent basis!

Approach avoidance motivation working together

I believe this conflict can be solved by focusing the mind and creating a strategy where the desired result of something ‘good’ in life is very strong AND the negative result of NOT taking action toward the ‘good’ thing are BOTH so strong that you are compelled to go make it happen. In a sense, they overwhelm the negative thought of getting rejected (or whatever the negative thought is) because the pull for both the positive result and what might not happen if the action is not taken win the day.

Think of the woman in the above example now. She wants to be with the man she desires. He will add love and joy to her life. She thinks of a life destitute of passion and joy from his absence. She sees herself with the man with a happy family. She knows he is kind, loving, and considerate. She sees a small window of opportunity. She can see both the wonderful time she will have with this man and the feeling of dread and emptiness from not taking the chance. She makes her move, no longer worrying about any rejection or negative outcome.


By classifying motivation as approach and avoidance, a greater understanding of decision making is reached. It is no easy task to create BOTH approach and avoidance motivation for the SAME thing that lead you to action. Generally they CONFLICT with each other. But if you can make them BOTH work for you, you will have unlocked one of life’s greatest mysteries.

My Friends: what have you noticed motivating you the most in your life? What ‘good’ things are you motivated to bring into your life? What ‘bad’ things are you motivated to keep out? Have you used both approach and avoidance motivation in your life to achieve a desired result?

image by h.koppdelaney

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12 thoughts on “Approach Motivation and Avoidance Motivation

  1. I always thought of people having one or the other: they either focus on avoiding pain or attaining pleasure. But, you’re definitely right that everyone has a varying degree of both. Now that you point it out I definitely see instances of approach and avoidance motivation at battle with each other in my life. I guess it needs to eventually come to the point where one has better rewards than the other.

    1. Hey Valerie – that’s pretty much it. Creating a more appealing situation through one set of circumstances and the other so that one is drawn to the stronger force. It’s simply a matter of creating in the mind the best picture and focusing on it enough that it ends up being the more desirable situation.

  2. Very thought provoking post! I agree that it’s rather difficult to take an approach motivation action when I’m focusing on the negative. But like the women who feared rejection, once she focused on all the positive attributes of what she would be missing out on, the good outweighs the bad and gives her motivation to pursue the guy.

    Thanks for sharing!!
    .-= Jarrod@ Optimistic Journey´s last blog ..You Know You’re Favored by God When… =-.

    1. Hi Jarrod – that’s definitely a challenge, not doing something due to fear of failure, rejection, or some kind of pain. So now I’m working on using approach motivation as a greater force than I have in the past and using avoidance motivation as a “pain if I don’t take the action” method.

  3. Hi Jeremy,

    The first time I came across this, it was called ‘Toward Thinking vs Away From Thinking.’ I enjoyed your take. When I first applied it to myself, I started out using it on small things. For instance, when I dine out, I would order by process of elimination (what I didn’t want). Now, I’m conscious of ordering from the menu by checking in with myself and what I might be craving (what I do want).

    It’s been said, a difficult question for most is, ‘What do you want?’ It’s often clouded by circumstances and inner blocks of ‘what if’s.’

    Writing your ‘wants’ in your daily journal, drops it into your subconscious and helps to manifest your desires.

    I really enjoyed this post.
    .-= Kim´s last blog ..Clarity — Take Action and the Next Step Will Reveal Itself =-.

    1. Mmmm, very good points Kim, I like :)

      Especially writing your wants in a daily journal. What a cool idea. I think it’s so easy to look at what I don’t want. I don’t want to get sick, I don’t want to lose my house, I don’t want to die, I don’t want to this that and the other.

      Which totally takes away from the focus of what is important and desired. Thanks for your insights.
      .-= Jeremy Johnson´s last blog ..Approach Motivation and Avoidance Motivation =-.

  4. Sam, I used to be all about avoidance motivation. Live to avoid whatever might be painful. Now I want the pain. I want the sweat. I want the rejection too – the rejection only fuels me to achieve and I know there is rejection and failure in my future, it is inevitable – but there will be a great deal of success along with it. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Hi, thanks for writing this, it really helped me with some report I had to do and I couldnt understand what avoidance motivation was. Now i can, but I have a little question, do you know what is the term for avoidance motivation in spanish? Because when you translate it, like literally,it makes no sense. I think is something like “Motivación evitativa” but I cannot find it on google, I will really appreciate if you can help me with this. Thank you!

  6. Approach/Avoidance Motivation is even mentioned in God’s word, AND He encourages us not to quit.

    21-23″When people realize it is the living God you are presenting and not some idol that makes them feel good, they are going to turn on you, even people in your own family. There is a great irony here: proclaiming so much love, experiencing so much hate! But don’t quit. Don’t cave in. It is all well worth it in the end. It is not success you are after in such times but survival. Be survivors!

  7. Jeremy, I appreciated your article. I have a tricky situation and I could use some help sorting it out. A childhood authority figure repeatedly told me (through stories) that “Creative and highly intelligent women were dysfunctional, couldn’t keep a clean house and eventually committed suicide. I was also told I didn’t need to worry because I wasn’t that smart and was trying to be “different—just to be different.”

    By an accident of life, I went to college and found out I was actually quite intelligent. I’ve also learned that my creativity is “off the charts” and very authentic indeed. Both of these revelations brought deep sadness and were very hard to accept.

    So what’s my struggle? That programming as a child still persists. I struggle with keeping anything clean….I struggle with suicidal ideation….I struggle with success in any form. (Btw, not to worry….I’m on meds and in weekly therapy.) It seems that my “approach avoidance” was set as a child to avoid success or the direst of results would happen. I don’t rationally think or believe that bunk….so why does it still affect me? I design amazing beauty around the home, but can’t maintain it. I seem to have this “deathwish” that my creations will fall into terrible disarray and the whole project become a disaster.

    I’m going to take your article—and my questions/insights—to therapy this week for advice there. However, I’d also look forward to seeing your input on my situation. Thanks for your article and thanks, in advance, for your thoughts.

    1. Hi Marie. The way I like to tackle life and problems is to take positive action each day and use repetition to reprogram my mind. I’ve had some bad childhood experiences and programming, but destroyed that through consistent positive action over years of time and changing my dialog to myself consciously to be positive and not accept the negative voice anymore.

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