Approach-avoidance conflict

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Approach-avoidance conflicts as elements of stress were first introduced by psychologist Kurt Lewin, one of the founders of modern social psychology.[1][2]

Approach-avoidance conflicts occur when there is one goal or event that has both positive and negative effects or characteristics that make the goal appealing and unappealing simultaneously.[3][4] For example, the popular American cultural construction of marriage is a momentous decision/goal/event that has both positive and negative aspects. The positive aspects, or approach portion, of marriage are togetherness, sharing memories, and companionship; however, there are negative aspects, or avoidance portions, including money issues, arguments, and in-laws. The negative effects influence the decision maker to avoid the goal or event, while the positive effects influence the decision maker to want to approach or proceed with the goal or event. The influence of the negative and positive aspects create a conflict because the decision maker either has to proceed with the goal or event or not partake in the goal or event at all. To continue with the example of marriage, a person might approach proposing to a partner with excitement because of the positive aspects of marriage: having a lifelong companion, sharing financial responsibilities. On the other hand, he or she might avoid proposing due to the negative aspects of marriage: arguments, money issues, joint decision making.

The approach side of this type of conflict is easy to start toward the goal, but as the goal is approached the negative factors increase in strength which causes indecision. If there are competing feelings to a goal, the stronger of the two will triumph. For instance, if a woman was thinking of starting a business she would be faced with positive and negative aspects. Before actually starting the business, the woman would be excited about the prospects of success for the new business and she would encounter (approach) the positive aspects first: she would attract investors, create interest in her upcoming ideas and it would be a new challenge. However, as she drew closer to actually launching the business, the negative aspects would become more apparent; the woman would acknowledge that it would require much effort, time, and energy from other aspects of her life. The increase in strength of these negative aspects (avoidance) would cause her to avoid the conflict or goal of starting the new business, which might result in indecision. Research pertaining to approach and avoidance conflicts has been extended into implicit motives, both abstract and social in nature.[5]


  1. ^ Allport, G. W. (1948). The Genius of Kurt Lewin. ‘’Journal of Social Issues, 4,’’ 14-21.
  2. ^ Lewin, K (1935). ‘’A Dynamic Theory of Personality.’’ New York: McGraw-Hill.
  3. ^ Miller, N. E. (1944). Experimental Studies of Conflict. In J.M. Hunt (Ed.), ‘’Personality and the behavior disorders’’ (Vol. 1). New York: Ronald.
  4. ^ Miller, N. E. (1959). Liberalization of basic S-R concepts: Extension to conflict behavior, motivation, and social learning. In S. Koch (Ed.), ‘’Psychology: A study of science’’ (Vol. 2). New York: McGraw-Hill.
  5. ^ Boyd, R.L., Robinson, M. D., & Fetterman, A. K. (2011). Miller (1944) revisited: Movement times in relation to approach and avoidance conflicts. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 1192-1197.