This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 09 table of contents.

Motivational Conflicts

Sometimes the urge to do something worthy or good or pleasurable is directly opposed by the fact that it involves pain or inconvenience or hard work. Then the organism is in conflict between two opposite motives. That is one form of motivational conflict called an approach/avoidance conflict. One may also feel torn between two different pleasures. Or one may be forced to choose between two pains. Each of these is a classic motivational conflict.

What are the classic motivational conflicts?

1. Approach/avoidance conflicts. The organism is attracted and repulsed by the same stimulus or situation.

2. Approach/approach conflicts. The organism is forced to choose between two different desirable stimuli.

3. Avoidance/avoidance conflicts. The organism is forced to choose between two different undesirable alternatives.

Avoidance tendencies tend to grow stronger as an event approaches. This has implications you can observe in your own life. A distant event such as a dentist appointment might seem desirable, and you make plans for it. But as the day approaches, the event seems less desirable, or you are more inclined to avoid it. This can happen with desirable goals as well as things you would rather avoid: it is called "getting cold feet."

What sort of behavior is common in situations of motivational conflict?

Vacillation (going back and forth) is common in situations of motivational conflict. If you are attracted to a person (an approach tendency) but feel shy and inhibited (an avoidance tendency) you may "go back and forth" a lot, in your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. First you lean one way, then the other. This phenomenon is also found in control systems where opponent processes are used. In that context, it is called oscillating instead of vacillating. All control systems oscillate when trying to mediate between two opposing forces, and vacillation is one example.

Approach/avoidance conflicts cause an animal to be torn between opposite forces. Animals caught between strong but opposite drive states may vacillate, going first one direction then the other. Or they may perform displacement activities as discussed in Chapter 8. Displacement activities appear to express nervousness or divert attention from a conflict.

Approach-approach conflicts involve a choice between two desirable goals when you can only have one. Sitting in front of a display of merchandise, when you can only afford to buy one thing, you may find yourself engaged in a displacement activity such as scratching your head. The conflict between large late rewards and short early rewards is a form of approach/approach conflict.

What are signs of strong motivational conflicts in animals?

Avoidance-avoidance conflicts involve choosing "the lesser of two evils." Animals caught between a fire and a river must choose which to face. They are likely to show signs of distress, jumping around, pawing the ground, or vocalizing until they plunge into the river. Strong motivational conflicts are also accompanied by signs of autonomic nervous system arousal: sweating, nervousness, blushing, and defecating. Rat researchers commonly count rat droppings as a way of quantifying (attaching a number to) the level of anxiety in rats.

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