Collective Approach-Avoidance Motivation

Social mood shapes a wide range of sociocultural phenomena. I believe that motivation research provides support for social mood as an important determinant of human social behavior. Research on a motivational force that underlies many forms of animate life is consistent with the socionomic hypothesis.

The disposition to be motivated and live purposely is an evolutionary imperative “built into the most fundamental architecture of zoological organisms” (Klinger, 1998). Research from several fields suggests there are two basic motivational systems that regulate goal-directed approach and avoidance behaviors. The evolutionary psychologists John Tooby and Leda Cosmides (1991) maintain that the decision to approach or withdraw has been the most fundamental adaptive decision for organisms through evolutionary history. It is crucial for survival to discriminate between stimuli that are pleasurable and potentially rewarding and which we can approach, and stimuli that are dangerous and which we should avoid.  Approach-avoidance motivation is deeply embedded in our nature; it is present even in organisms as simple as single-cell amoeba (Schneirla, 1959).

The avoidance system is commonly labeled the behavioral inhibition system, and the approach system is variously termed the behavioral activation system, behavioral facilitation system, behavioral approach system, and behavioral engagement system (see Olson, 2006). Influential research by Jeffrey Gray supported the existence of behavioral approach and inhibition systems that are based in the nervous system, are independent of each other, and represent appetitive and aversive motivation.

Extensive research by Richard Davidson and colleagues concluded that neural substrates for behavioral approach and positive emotion are lateralized in the left anterior regions of the cerebral cortex, and behavioral withdrawal and negative affect are lateralized in the right anterior cortical regions. Elliott and Thrash (2010) recently provided an overview of research and marshalled evidence that approach and avoidance temperaments are basic dimensions of personality.

The approach system facilitates the tendency to desire and seek rewards and goals, and generates positive affect.  In human studies it is empirically correlated with positive emotion. The avoidance system is sensitive to threats, punishment, and aversive stimuli and is oriented toward avoiding and preventing harm and loss. It promotes vigilant attention to the environment and is empirically correlated with negative emotion. Approach and avoidance motivation are associated with many, but not all, of the characteristics of positive and negative social mood identified by Robert Prechter in chapter 14 of The Wave Principle of Human Social Behavior.

People differ from each other in the relative strength of their approach and avoidance tendencies. One might say that an individual with strong approach motivation is the “glass half-full” person, while an individual with strong avoidance motivation sees the glass half-empty (and worries about the glass tipping over).

I posit that social mood is associated with what I term collective approach-avoidance motivation. Collective approach motivation, the aggregate approach motivation of a group or society, is associated with positive social mood and leads to a societal focus on potential rewards and desirable outcomes. So collective approach motivation stimulates collective goal-striving, risk-taking, and achievement. Collective avoidance motivation, on the other hand, is associated with negative social mood and yields a societal emphasis on avoiding harm and negative outcomes. It leads to collective caution, defensiveness, and risk-aversion.

In the economic realm, for example, collective approach/appetitive motivation is associated with positive social mood that leads to buying, investment, and business expansion. Collective avoidance/aversive motivation is associated with negative social mood that contributes to anxiety, caution, risk aversion and business contraction. Indeed, bull market psychology may be viewed as the collective motivation to approach risk and achieve gains, while bear market psychology is the collective motivation to avoid risk and prevent losses. Similar to positive and negative social mood, the direction of the stock market is a useful index of collective approach and avoidance motivation.

Approach and avoidance motivation are independent dimensions. The strength of collective approach motivation relative to collective avoidance motivation in a society will vary over time. During stock bull markets, collective approach motivation is stronger than avoidance motivation. In bear markets, the opposite is true.

One might ask if society becomes “less motivated” during periods of negative social mood. During bear markets, for example, socionomic theory indicates that people in general are less industrious and motivated to achieve. In answer to this question, it is likely that the total motivational energy in a society conforms to the law of conservation of energy, which states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; the amount of energy in a system is constant but it can change forms. Thus, the total amount of motivation in a society is roughly constant. It is the nature or form of motivation that changes, either toward approach or avoidance.

In periods of collective approach, the motivation is to build, achieve, and expand. During collective avoidance, the motivation is to preserve and defend. This is consistent with the investment saw that during bull markets, people are interested in return on their capital and in bear markets are concerned about return OF their capital. Therefore society as a whole does not become less motivated as such during periods of negative social mood, but rather its motivational focus changes and energy is directed toward avoidance goals rather than primarily toward approach efforts.    

Avoidance motivation is correlated with negative emotion and may also be manifested in the negative mood states of anger and rage, giving rise to the impulse to attack or destroy. For example, in response to perceived threat, the fight-or-flight response in animals and humans may lead to either self-protective withdrawal or violence. Collective avoidance motivation may lead to social retrenchment and defensiveness, but also to social protests and the desire to overthrow existing power structures that are viewed as threats.    

Complex social phenomena, like social mood, typically have multiple influences. I am positing here an emergent collective motivational system that is associated with social mood. This system fits the existing empirical evidence concerning the relations between approach-avoidance motivation and emotion, and it is conceptually consistent with socionomic theory of social mood.

Approach and avoidance motivation may be rooted in fundamental forces of nature. Approach motivation entails attraction to stimuli and goals, and avoidance entails repulsion. Electromagnetism, one of the four fundamental interactions in nature, and atomic bonding both involve attraction and repulsion. In electromagnetism, electric charges and magnetic poles either attract or repel each other. Intermolecular forces, forces that are exerted by molecules on each other, are either attractive or repulsive in nature. Ordinary matter takes its form as a result of intermolecular forces. Atomic bonding involves a balance of electrical attraction and repulsion of protons and electrons.

Attraction and repulsion are also properties of gravity. According to Alan Guth of MIT, creator of the currently accepted Big Bang theory, two forms of gravity exist: gravitational attraction and repulsion. Positive pressure creates an attractive gravitational field of the kind we are accustomed to, while negative pressure creates a repulsive form of gravity which caused the inflationary expansion of the universe.

Although the mechanisms are not known, it is intriguing to speculate that the force of attraction-repulsion may serve in an elemental way as the underlying basis of behavioral approach-avoidance. Deep forces that structure the physical world may also be embedded in social behavior and emotion.


Elliott, A. J., & Thrash, T. M. (2010). Approach and avoidance temperament as basic dimensions of personality. Journal of Personality, 78, 1-42.

Klinger, E. (1998). The search for meaning in evolutionary perspective and its clinical implications. In P. Wong & P. Fry, (Eds.), The Human Quest for Meaning. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum & Associates, 1998, pp. 27-50

Olson, K. R. (2006). A literature review of social mood. The Journal of Behavioral Finance, 7, 193-2003.

Schneirla, T. (1959). An evolutionary and developmental theory of biphasic processes underlying approach and withdrawal. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, pp. 1-42.

Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. (1990). The past explains the present: Emotional adaptations and the structure of ancestral environments. Ethology and Sociobiology, 11, 375-424.