The present studies examined the moderating role of state motivation on the associations between trait avoidance motivation, risk perception and emotional processing. In Studies 1 and 2, avoidance or approach states were evoked in participants who then completed a risk perception task and a trait avoidance motivation measure. Both studies showed that trait avoidance only correlated with risk perceptions among individuals in approach state. In Study 3, emotional interpretation was measured. State and trait avoidance motivation did not interact in predicting emotional interpretation. The results showed that the effect of state motivation can explain the low correlations found between trait avoidance and risk perceptions, and suggested that the avoidance system may operate on an on–off principle rather than synergistically. Copyright © 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.