Approach avoidance conflict is a mental battle that occurs when you have a difficult decision to make and all your options have pros and cons without a clear favorite.
How do you feel about marriage? If you’re young and yet to get married, you’ll have an opinion if marriage is right for you. If you’re already married, you’ll have a list of good and bad things about married life.
Meet Randall, a 31 years old ambitious career-oriented person who’s facing a dilemma. For over a decade, he has lived life on his own terms, making decisions that suit his personality and independent style of life. Currently, he feels that he is at the point where he needs to get married because he wants to have a long-term relationship which adds meaning to his life.
When he looks at marriage, he cannot make a clear decision because it has both pros and cons.
- Pros: Companionship, love, togetherness, support, not being lonely
- Cons: Invasion of space, compromise, change, finances, in-laws
Whether he decides to get married or not depends on how strongly he feels about the advantages and disadvantages or how far is he willing to compromise.
His choices are either to approach marriage or to avoid it. Therefore such mental conflict in decision making is called approach avoidance conflict.
In this article, I will explain how approach avoidance conflict works, the factors that play a role, and the ways to combat it.
- What is approach avoidance conflict?
- Variants and similarities:
- How is approach avoidance conflict different from cognitive dissonance?
- Why does approach avoidance conflict occur?
What is approach avoidance conflict?
Approach avoidance conflict is the uncertainty of making a decision because any choice you make has both advantages and disadvantages. The dilemma can occur when you’re picking between two options such as “Should I buy the red shoes or the white ones?” or with a single choice such as “Should I buy the shoes or not?”
The diagram below depicts how the conflict originates and flows through your mind.
To explain how the effect works, I will use the same example of the decision to get married.
Step 1: Initiation
The first step of the conflict begins with your reason to make the decision. A certain event or a thought can abruptly trigger the first step of the decision-making process, or a variety of factors can collectively initiate it over time.
Often, the initiation occurs due to one or more advantages of making the decision. In some scenarios, societal factors, peer pressure, or circumstantial fear can compel you into decision making too.
In the case of marriage several reasons can initiate the thought:
- You want to make your long term girlfriend your wife(self choice)
- You met an amazing guy and you know he’s the one for you(self choice)
- You realize you’re growing old(circumstances)
- Everyone in your friend circle is married(peer pressure)
- You feel that you’ll have no companionship as you grow older(fear)
- Your parents, siblings, relatives, and friends are asking you to get married(societal factors)
Whatever your reason, once you have started thinking about marriage, you have initiated the decision-making process.
Step 2: Advantages highlighted or disadvantages criticized
After the thought sprouts in your mind, you look at the advantages or disadvantages of the decision. Which side you look at partly depends on how the decision-making process was initiated.
If making the decision was your choice, you tend to look at the advantages first.
For example, if you want to get married because you’re madly in love with your partner, all the advantages of marriage come to your mind.
If you’re making a decision due to external factors outside your own choice, you tend to look at the disadvantages first.
For example, if you’re getting married due to peer pressure, you tend to look at all the disadvantages first.
These are the likely sides that your mind first explores. But, you might look at the situation rationally or emotionally based on your personality and the circumstances.
Step 3: The conflict
Sooner or later, you realize the other side of the equation. If you’ve only considered the advantages, you discover the disadvantages of your viewpoint. If you’ve only looked at the negatives, you notice the positives too.
For example, if you’re marrying your long-term partner because you want to, you understand that dating and living together aren’t the same. If you’re against marriage, you realize that in the long run, you need a companion to live with.
Whatever the reasons, your mind is battling between the two choices. You’re evaluating the strength of each advantage and disadvantage weighing your personal incentive in each attribute alongside.
Step 4: The decision or indecision
Finally, you have to choose between your options – you either approach pleasure(based on the advantages) or avoid pain(based on the disadvantages).
Many a time, you cannot make up your mind because both choices have their pros and cons. In such cases, one of the following occurs:
- You accept one choice for the greater good despite its flaws
- You reject one choice despite its advantages
- You fail to make a decision and postpone it for the future
Variants and similarities:
Approach avoidance conflict has two variants based on similar logic.
Approach approach conflict:
This is a conflict where you have to choose between two options which both give you pleasure. Due to another factor, you cannot have them both, so you need to pick one.
For example, you have to pick between two movies to watch. You don’t have the time to watch them both.
Avoidance avoidance conflict:
This is a conflict where you have to choose between two options both of which you dislike. Due to an external reason, you’re forced to pick one of them
For example, you have to either finish doing the dishes or cleaning the cupboard. Though you dislike them both, you have to choose one because your house is a mess.
How is approach avoidance conflict different from cognitive dissonance?
Approach avoidance conflict has many similarities with cognitive dissonance where your mind fights a battle between two choices of action/decision. But, approach avoidance conflict is an easier struggle because it involves an external entity whereas in cognitive dissonance your mind is fighting between your belief and your actions.
Why does approach avoidance conflict occur?
Three factors cause approach avoidance conflict.
Your mental conflict depends on your purpose behind the task at hand. If you have a ‘why’ to complete or avoid a task, you lean towards the choice.
When you have to pick between two tasks, your brain chooses the one you have a reason for.
For example, you want to make coffee. When you get off the couch, your phone. Now, you have two tasks to pick from:
- Walk into the kitchen to make coffee
- Answer the ringing phone
In most cases, you’ll attend the phone because you have a reason(rings only for a few seconds) to finish it first.
2. Strength of the desire/reason
When you have different reasons to approach pleasure and avoid pain, your mind makes a decision based on how strongly you feel towards one of them.
For example, let’s say you have a goal to quit your job and start your own business. When you’re free over the weekend, you face a choice – you can relax or work on putting a plan together for your business.
What you choose to do depends on how badly you want to achieve the goal. If your desire is strong enough, you will put in the effort to do the groundwork for your business even though it causes exhaustion. If not, you’ll choose to relax and have fun over the weekend.
3. Psychological distance
When you’re chasing a goal, the psychological distance between your current situation and your final destination influences your mindset and actions in the present.
If your goal seems distant, the chances of procrastination increase. If you’ve already made progress and built momentum, you’re more likely to put in the further effort.
For example, if you plan to get shredded with 6 pack abs, the effort you put in depends on your current physical state and routine. If you’ve never exercised, you tend to postpone working out for the future saying, “How much difference would a week make?” But, if you’ve already worked out for 2 weeks and lost 5 pounds, you’re more likely to persist.
That said, psychological distance is one of the factors, and not the only one. Even if you’ve never worked out in your life, a strong desire can propel you to the gym.
How to resolve approach avoidance conflict
1. Find a reason
If you’re performing a task without a reason, you should begin with finding a purpose. Without one, you’re unlikely to persist with any task or goal in the long run.
If you cannot find a reason to pursue the goal you’re chasing, it’s time to take a step back and ask yourself, “Should I even chase this goal or go after another which resonates with me?”
2. Increase the strength of the desired choice
When you’re choosing between two options, your mind prefers to pick what’s comfortable. To convince yourself to make the right choice, you can:
- Increase the strength of the desired destination
- Find reasons to devalue the other choice
Let’s take an example where you’ve to pick between learning the skills required to change your job or watching Netflix.
Pull out a paper or open a notepad and start writing the advantages of your preferred choice and the disadvantages of the easier choice
Pros of learning the skills
- A stable financial future
- A high income
- A sense of contentment and achievement
- Better work culture and environment
- Not having Monday blues anymore
Cons of watching Netflix
- No skills developed
- Other employees overshadowing your performance
- Possible loss of job
- 3 hours of Netflix costing 75$(or an equivalent value based on your hourly rate)
Feel free to look at an optimistic future to boost your motivation and pursue the right choice. Likewise, use fear to avoid the other choice if necessary.
3. Reduce the distance between your current situation and your goal
When you’re far away from achieving the goal, your mind leans towards avoidance. As the gap closes down, you find the motivation to keep going.
Therefore, if you want to avoid procrastination, break the large goal into simple tasks and take the first step early. If you’re unable to start, simplify the task into further sub-tasks such that you can take the first step right from your seat.
- To start a business, think of possible names for your venture
- To start working out, look up the gyms nearby, call them and ask for the membership fee details(you don’t have to sign up today)
- To change your career, search for an online course or a useful book to get started(you don’t have to start the course immediately)
See, the first step doesn’t have to be daunting if you simplify it to the point that you can breeze through it right from where you are.
If you keep procrastinating the first action, your tendency to lean towards avoidance grows stronger and stronger.
The human brain is complex in many ways and simple in some others. Though it has staggering processing power, an underlying layer of emotions influences how it functions.
Behavioral scientists haven’t yet figured out how the brain handles emotions in different situations, but significant progress has been made in recent years. Approach avoidance conflict is one such theory that simplifies how our brain works by saying that we either seek pleasure or avoid pain.
Though the theory oversimplifies the decision-making process, knowing what your brain seeks can help you understand yourself, your thoughts, and your actions.
Approach-avoidance conflict (social psychology) – iresearchnet. Psychology. (2016, January 21). http://psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/control/approach-avoidance-conflict/.
(Pdf) approach-avoidance conflict. ResearchGate. (n.d.). https://www.researchgate.net/publication/312191019_Approach-Avoidance_Conflict.
Barker, T. V., Buzzell, G. A., & Fox, N. A. (2019). Approach, avoidance, and the detection of conflict in the development of behavioral inhibition. New ideas in psychology, 53, 2–12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.newideapsych.2018.07.001
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.