The Role of Social Approach and Avoidance Motives for Subjective Well-Being and the Successful Transition to Adulthood


  • Jana Nikitin,

    Corresponding author
    1. University of Zurich, Switzerland
      * Address for correspondence: Jana Nikitin or Alexandra M. Freund, University of Zurich, Department of Psychology, Binzmuehlestrasse 14/11, CH-8050 Zurich, Switzerland. Email: or
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  • Alexandra M. Freund

    Corresponding author
    1. University of Zurich, Switzerland
      * Address for correspondence: Jana Nikitin or Alexandra M. Freund, University of Zurich, Department of Psychology, Binzmuehlestrasse 14/11, CH-8050 Zurich, Switzerland. Email: or
    Search for more papers by this author

  • We wish to thank Corwin Senko for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper. We also acknowledge the help of Tamara Herz who carefully edited this manuscript.

* Address for correspondence: Jana Nikitin or Alexandra M. Freund, University of Zurich, Department of Psychology, Binzmuehlestrasse 14/11, CH-8050 Zurich, Switzerland. Email: or


Social affiliation appears to be a central human need. Taking a developmental perspective, we discuss whether and how the desire to belong (approach motivation) and the fear of being rejected (avoidance motivation) might be of central importance for understanding success or failure in transitional phases, especially in the transition from adolescence into adulthood. Cognitive, emotional, and behavioral consequences of social motives (approach, avoidance, and their co-occurrence) are reviewed. We argue that both tendencies need to be taken into account for understanding affiliation motivation and behavior and its significance for life satisfaction and well-being. A predominant social approach motivation has positive consequences for cognition, behavior, emotion, and well-being, whereas the opposite pattern holds for a predominant avoidance motivation. Co-occurrence of both is characterised by ambivalent cognitions and emotions, and unstable behavior. Taking a developmental perspective, however, and considering social development in the transition to adulthood, co-occurrence might be more beneficial than a predominant avoidance motivation.

Il est clair que l’affiliation est un besoin humain fondamental. On se demande, dans une perspective développementale, si et comment le désir d’être accueilli (motivation à l’approche) et la crainte d’être rejeté (motivation à l’évitement) pourraient être d’une importance majeure dans l’explication du succès ou de l’échec des périodes de transition, en particulier lors du passage de l’adolescence à l’âge adulte. On passe en revue les prolongements cognitifs, émotionnels et comportementaux des motivations sociales (approche, évitement et leurs corollaires). On soutient que les deux tendances doivent être prises en compte pour comprendre la motivation à l’affiliation et les comportements qui s’ensuivent, ainsi que leur portée pour le bien-être et le bonheur de vivre. Etre prioritairement motivé par les contacts sociaux a des retombées positives sur la cognition, le comportement, les émotions et le bien-être, tandis que le schéma inverse renvoie à une motivation dominante pour l’évitement. La co-occurrence de ces deux motivations provoque des cognitions et des émotions ambivalentes et un comportement instable. Toutefois, d’un point de vue développemental, et pour ce qui est de la maturation sociale lors du passage vers l’âge adulte, la co-occurrence pourrait se révéler plus bénéfique que la seule motivation à l’évitement.


Imagine a young woman entering a class for the very first time at the beginning of her time at college. She might be looking forward to meeting new people and making new friends. At the same time, however, she might fear that her fellow students might not like her very much and that she might be excluded from social groups. Experiencing these ambivalent feelings, she sits down and tries to speak to one of the students sitting next to her. The conversation is not really successful. It drags on for a while and, finally, ends in an embarrassing silence. She would like to try another conversational topic, but nothing springs to mind. So she keeps quiet, feeling awkward, but hoping that her next approach will be more successful.

In this paper, we explore some of the motivational factors that might contribute to this young woman's social experience and behavior. We argue that social approach and avoidance motivation might be important in understanding social experience and behavior, particularly in transition phases such as the one from adolescence into adulthood. Moreover, social approach and avoidance motivation significantly influence success or failure in social relationships (e.g. Gable, 2006), one of the most important aspects of subjective well-being (Diener & Seligman, 2002).

The ability to establish and maintain interpersonal relationships is one of the central milestones of successful development. Although this is true across the entire life span (e.g. Cacioppo, Hughes, Waite, Hawkley, & Thisted, 2006; Freund & Riediger, 2003; Lang, 2004; Lerner, Brentano, Dowling, & Anderson, 2002; Ryff, 1989), building positive social relations might be particularly important in the transition from adolescence into young adulthood. Some of the central developmental tasks in this transition are establishing autonomy and independence from the parental home, building meaningful social ties and friendships with peers, establishing a romantic relationship, and being able to navigate social relations when entering working life (Arnett, 2000; Eccles, Templeton, Barber, & Stone, 2003; Gullotta, Adams, & Montemayor, 1990).

To accomplish these tasks, young adults have to interact with a relatively large number of unfamiliar people (e.g. Fingerman & Hay, 2002; Freeman & Brown, 2001). Unlike other age groups, where such situations might also appear (for example as a consequence of moving to another city or of changing workplace), for young adults this might be the first time in their lives when they have to manage such a situation alone. Socialising with people one does not yet know creates pressure to show adequate social behavior without having much information about what behavior would be most adaptive. As argued by Caspi and Moffitt (1993), in such situations, individual differences might play a more important role than in familiar and predictable situations. One of the most important individual differences that influence social-related transitions should be dispositional affiliation motivation: not only whether a person is high or low in affiliation motivation, but also whether the affiliation motive is characterised by approach or avoidance tendencies might determine social success, particularly when getting to know new people (Sokolowski & Heckhausen, 2006). In this paper, we not only discuss the antecedents and consequences of social approach and avoidance motivation, but also highlight that social approach and avoidance can co-occur within a person. We review literature showing that social approach and avoidance motivation have differential cognitive, emotional, and behavioral features and different consequences for subjective well-being and life satisfaction, particularly in the transition into adulthood. In addition, we propose possible consequences of co-occurring approach–avoidance motivation for social experience and behavior. We believe that this approach adds to our understanding of factors contributing to positive social experiences and behaviors.

Social Approach and Avoidance Motivation

The desire to belong and to be socially accepted as well as to avoid social rejection or even isolation is a central human need (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). In general, people react with approach tendencies towards stimuli signaling social acceptance and affiliation and with avoidance tendencies when confronted with stimuli signaling social disapproval or rejection. Not surprisingly, people want to belong and not be rejected.

Most social situations are ambiguous (e.g. Baldwin, 1992) and can be interpreted in terms of approach (i.e. as a chance for affiliation) or avoidance (i.e. as a threat of social rejection). How such ambiguous situations are interpreted depends, among other things, on the person's motivational state (Derryberry & Reed, 1994; Maner, Kenrick, Becker, Robertson, Hofer, Neuberg, Delton, Butner, & Schaller, 2005; Strachman & Gable, 2006). A person's motivational state at a given time is influenced by his or her dispositional approach and avoidance motives. Thereby, dispositional motives influence the motivational state, which, in turn, influences sensitivity towards motive-congruent information and impacts upon behavior.

In the affiliation domain, approach motivation refers to a dispositional orientation towards positive, hoped-for social incentives, whereas avoidance motivation refers to an orientation away from negative, feared social incentives (McClelland, 1985). Approach and avoidance motivation can be found on the level of more automatic and non-conscious implicit motives as well as on the level of self-reported, explicit motives and goals (e.g. Ebner, Freund, & Baltes, 2006; Elliot, Gable, & Mapes, 2006; Sokolowski, Schmalt, Langens, & Pucca, 2000). Implicit motives on the one side and explicit motives and goals on the other are two distinct motivational systems (Brunstein, Schultheiss, & Grässman, 1998; McClelland, Koestner, & Weinberger, 1989). It is not yet well understood which role approach and avoidance tendencies play on these two levels. Gable (2006) proposed a model of social motivation, where approach and avoidance social goals are proximal features of more distal approach and avoidance social (implicit and explicit) motives. In our view, social implicit motives seem particularly well suited for explaining automatic evaluative processes and emotional as well as behavioral reactions in ambiguous social situations, because they are dispositionally preactivated and most likely to emerge in unstructured or ambiguous situations (Brunstein et al., 1998; McClelland et al., 1989; Murray, 1943). However, as we are not aware of studies that show different consequences of approach and avoidance social motivation regarding different motivational levels, we review literature on both implicit and explicit motives as well as goals.

Approach and avoidance motivation are largely independent of each other and show differential effects on emotion, cognition, and behavior (e.g. Davidson, 1993; Gable, 2006; Gray, 1982; Miller, 1944; Sokolowski et al., 2000). Previous research has dealt separately with approach and avoidance motivation (e.g. Coats, Janoff-Bulman, & Alpert, 1996; Dickson & MacLeod, 2004; Elliot & Covington, 2001; Förster, Grant, Idson, & Higgins, 2001; Gable, 2006). Lewin (1935) was one of the few motivation researchers who considered the simultaneous occurrence of approach and avoidance tendencies. In his field theory, Lewin emphasised that any given object (or event) can, at the same time, possess positively valued aspects (leading to approach tendencies) and negatively valued aspects (leading to avoidance tendencies). If there is no clear dominance of one of these tendencies (attract or repel) and both tendencies are strong, a person experiences a conflict, which is expressed as an inability to perform goal-directed behavior and feelings of tension.

We want to follow up on Lewin's proposal of the co-occurrence of approach and avoidance tendencies in response to the same object or event. Thus, we argue that approach and avoidance motivation can be combined into four motivational states (see Table 1). If approach motivation is high and avoidance motivation low, then approach dominance results. Conversely, if approach motivation is low and avoidance motivation high, then avoidance dominance results. Co-occurrence of the two motives occurs when both approach and avoidance motivation is high. Finally, a generally low affiliation motivation is the expression of low approach and low avoidance motivation. We will attempt to understand the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral processes related to the co-occurrence of social approach and avoidance motives (but see Mehrabian, 1994; Sokolowski & Heckhausen, 2006). The question we are addressing is what happens cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally when a given situation activates a motivational orientation towards approach and, at the same time, towards avoidance. We will first discuss social approach and avoidance motivation as independent motivational systems and then review the literature on the consequences of social motives, showing that high social avoidance motivation might make the transition into adulthood particularly difficult regarding establishing and maintaining new social ties.

Table 1. 
Approach and Avoidance Social Motivation: Predominance and Co-occurrence
AvoidanceLowLow Social MotivationApproach Dominance
HighAvoidance DominanceApproach–Avoidance Co-occurrence


One of our main assumptions is that approach and avoidance motivation are two independent motivational systems that can be activated simultaneously. Approach and avoidance motivation are only marginally correlated (Mehrabian, 1994; Sokolowski et al., 2000; see also Ebner et al., 2006, for moderate correlations between approach and avoidance motivation on the level of personal goals). Moreover, differential associations with other constructs support the notion of two independent motivational systems in such diverse areas as personality, emotion, cognition, and neurophysiology. For instance, Gable and colleagues (Gable, Reis, & Elliot, 2003) found evidence for two motivational systems, one concerned with obtaining positive outcomes, the other concerned with avoiding negative outcomes. Indicators of the avoidance system were neuroticism, negative affect, behavioral inhibition (BIS), self-reported fear motive, implicit fear motive, avoidance coping style, and negative temperament. Indicators of the approach system were extraversion, positive affect, behavioral activation (BAS), self-reported hope motive, implicit hope motive, approach coping style, and positive temperament. In line with Carver, Sutton, and Scheier (2000), the authors concluded that the perception of, and reaction to, positive environmental cues are managed by an underlying appetitive regulatory system, whereas the perception of, and reaction to, negative environmental cues are managed by an underlying aversive regulatory system. These two systems are activated by different environmental stimuli, may function through discrete mechanisms, and are associated with different outcomes. In the next section, we report empirical evidence on the different cognitive, emotional, and behavioral consequences of approach and avoidance motivation, and their consequences for subjective well-being (summarised in Table 2).

Table 2. 
Emotional, Cognitive, and Behavioral Consequences of Approach and Avoidance Motivation
 Approach MotivationAvoidance Motivation
Information ProcessingHigh sensitivity for Positive Social InformationHigh sensitivity for Negative Social Information
EmotionsPositive AffectNegative Affect
Behavioral Pre-activationActive Approach Behavior (“Eagerness”)Passive Avoidance Behavior (“Vigilance”)
Subjective Well-BeingHighLow

Differential Cognitive Consequences of Approach and Avoidance Motivation

Approach and avoidance motivation appear to be associated with different information processing, like perception and interpretation of social information and memory processes (Derryberry & Reed, 1994; Gomez & Gomez, 2002; Strachman & Gable, 2006). Selective attention is often viewed as a flexible “spotlight” that serves to facilitate the processing of information toward which it is oriented (Posner, 1978), and the direction of the focus is influenced by motivational processes (Derryberry & Reed, 1994). Regarding approach and avoidance motivation, Derryberry and Reed (1994) found that, whereas positive cues elicit greater attention in approach-motivated people, negative cues elicit greater attention in avoidance-motivated people. Similarly, Gray (1982) postulated that BIS detects signals of punishment, and BAS detects signals of reward. BIS and BAS have been associated with avoidance and approach motivation, respectively (Gable et al., 2003). In addition to attention, approach and avoidance motivation have also been found to influence memory and evaluation processes. Gomez and Gomez (2002) showed that approach motivation was associated with the processing of positive emotional information and avoidance motivation with the processing of negative emotional information. Participants high in approach motivation (BAS sensitivity) completed ambiguous words in a more positive manner in a word fragmentation task, identified more positive words correctly as positive in a word recognition task, and recalled more positive words in a word-recall task. In contrast, participants high in avoidance motivation (BIS sensitivity) completed ambiguous words in a more negative manner, identified more negative words correctly as negative, and recalled more negative words than participants high in approach motivation. Similarly, in two studies, Strachman and Gable (2006) found that social avoidance motivation was correlated with better memory for negative information, a negatively biased interpretation of ambiguous social cues, and a more pessimistic evaluation of social actors. Social approach motivation was not correlated with the amount of remembered positive information but was associated with processing neutral social information with a positive view. Moreover, when participants were given a social goal that was not congruent with their dispositional social motivation, they were more likely to reword it into a congruent goal (e.g. participants given avoidance social goals changed them into approach goals). In sum, then, approach motivation appears to facilitate processing of positive information, whereas avoidance motivation appears to facilitate processing of negative information.

Differential Emotional Consequences of Approach and Avoidance Motivation

With Higgins (Higgins, 1997; see also Carver et al., 2000), we assume that the emotional experience of approach and avoidance motivation in social situations is best described as the consequence of two different regulatory systems that concern either positive and pleasurable experiences or negative and painful experiences. The stronger the approach motivation, the stronger cheerfulness-related emotions are when obtaining positive outcomes and the stronger dejection-related emotions are when failing to obtain positive outcomes. In contrast, avoidance motivation is proposed to be associated with quiescence-related emotions when a negative outcome does not occur and with agitation-related emotions when the feared negative outcome does occur (Higgins, 1997). A number of studies by Higgins and colleagues support these assumptions (e.g. Förster et al., 2001; Higgins, Roney, Crowe, & Hymes, 1994). Applied to social approach and avoidance motives, this implies that avoidance-motivated people might experience high negative affect (agitation-related emotions) in social situations when they fear rejection and low negative affect (quiescence-related emotions) when they are not rejected. Approach-motivated people might experience high positive affect (cheerfulness-related emotions) when in an affiliation situation and low positive affect (dejection-related emotions) when they fail to affiliate with others.

Differential Behavioral Consequences of Approach and Avoidance Motivation

In addition to cognition and emotion, approach and avoidance motivation are also associated with different behavioral tendencies. Based on Higgins’ research, one could expect avoidance-motivated individuals to show vigilant behavior in order to ensure safety and non-losses. Approach-motivated individuals could be expected to show eager behavior in order to attain advancement and gains (Higgins, 1997). The following summary shows that empirical evidence confirms these expectations.

As already mentioned, one could expect avoidance motivation to lead to timid behavior because the avoidance of negative outcomes is most important in this motivational state. This might be expressed in hesitation, reacting to instead of actively approaching others, or avoiding conflict, to name a few examples. This is supported by research on motives (for a summary of the research, see Koestner & McClelland, 1992). High avoidance motivation is positively associated with the likelihood of compliance with requests (probably rooted in an attempt to avoid interpersonal conflict), with aversion to and performing worse in competitive interpersonal endeavors (probably so as not to outperform others, which might lead to social tension), and with higher achievement in classes led by warm and friendly instructors (because the perceived probability of rejection might be smaller). In contrast, approach motivation in social situations might be primarily associated with self-confident and relaxed behavior, as well as with active approach behavior in social contexts. Findings by McAdams and colleagues (for a summary of the research, see McAdams, 1992) support this view: high approach motivation is positively associated with involving all group members in spontaneous and convivial exchange, positioning oneself in closer proximity to others, showing more eye contact, smiling, and laughing in friendly one-on-one conversations, and having a greater level of self-disclosure and listening in conversations with friends.

Due to their differential relationships to behavior, approach- and avoidance-motivated people also differ in regard to their social success. Mehrabian and colleagues (for a summary of the research, see Mehrabian, 1994) found that people with high approach motivation are more liked by others than people with low approach motivation, they feel more confident in social situations, and their friendliness “spills over” to their social partners. In contrast, people with high avoidance motivation feel tense when in social situations and this tension tends to spill over to their interaction partners. Avoidance-motivated people have low confidence, are timid, and see themselves as unpopular and isolated, though they do not interact with others less than approach-motivated people. Moreover, they have lower social skills and their behavior in social situations makes them feel inadequate and incompetent. Not surprisingly, highly avoidance-motivated people are relatively unpopular (e.g. Atkinson, Heyns, & Veroff, 1954). The low popularity of avoidance-motivated people might also be the result of their reluctant behavior and possibly lacking adjusted behavioral strategies to get in contact with others. In contrast, their peers rate highly approach-motivated people as sincere, loving, and natural. Students with high approach motivation are described by their teachers as more friendly, affectionate, sincere, cooperative, and popular than students with low approach motivation (McAdams & Powers, 1981).

Differential Consequences of Approach and Avoidance Motivation for Well-Being

Subjective well-being is often defined in terms of frequent positive affect, infrequent negative affect, and high life satisfaction (e.g. Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999). Life circumstances and demographics, traits and dispositions, and intentional behaviors have been identified as predictors of well-being (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005). Within these three categories, personality traits account for the largest portion of the individual variance in subjective well-being (40–50%; Diener et al., 1999). In research on personality traits and subjective well-being, extraversion and neuroticism emerge as the two most robust predictors of well-being. As can be expected, given the content of these personality dimensions, extraversion is positively related to subjective well-being, while neuroticism is associated with low subjective well-being (e.g. Costa & McCrae, 1980; Emmons & Diener, 1985). Importantly, social affiliation seems to be the most frequently used strategy for enhancing subjective well-being and a mediator between personality and subjective well-being (Tkach & Lyubomirsky, 2006). People who socialise a lot with others are happier than those who do not. Thus, as social approach motivation is characterised by high exposure to positive social events (Gable, 2006), approach-motivated individuals might have higher well-being than those low in approach motivation.

In a study on social approach and avoidance motivation and friendship approach and avoidance goals, Elliot et al. (2006) found that approach motivation was a positive predictor of approach goals, and approach goals, in turn, were a positive predictor of subjective well-being. In contrast, neuroticism was positively related to the adoption of personal avoidance goals and individuals with a greater proportion of avoidance goals (related to approach goals), in turn, reported not only lower subjective well-being than those with a smaller proportion of avoidance goals, but also a decrease in subjective well-being over time (Elliot, Sheldon, & Church, 1997). Regarding friendship goals, social avoidance motivation was found to be a predictor of avoidance goals, which positively predicted loneliness, the frequency of negative relational events, and the impact of negative relational events to well-being (Elliot et al., 2006).

In a study on social reaction styles, Eronen, Nurmi, and Salmela-Aro (1997) found that an avoidant style (which was measured as high levels of social avoidance and negative affect in statements to cartoons of social situations) was associated with low levels of well-being and social adjustment one to three years later.

The association between social avoidance motivation and low well-being seems to be mediated by a readiness to perceive such negative cues like rejection (Downey & Feldman, 1996; Downey, Freitas, Michaelis, & Khouri, 1998) and to react more strongly to these negative cues (Gable, 2006). Also, as argued earlier, avoidance motivation is associated with frequent experience of negative affect, which, in turn, leads to lower subjective well-being. In contrast, recurrent exposure to positive social events (Gable, 2006) and frequent experience of positive affect in social situations seem to mediate the association between social approach motivation and high well-being.

In sum, we have defined approach motivation as sensitivity to signs of social acceptance. Research supports the notion that approach-motivated people are more likely to detect and remember positive social incentives, experience positive emotions in social interactions, and behave in an active approach manner. They are also more successful in social situations than avoidance-motivated people and have higher well-being. In contrast, avoidance-motivated people are more likely to detect and remember negative social incentives, show vigilant avoidance behavior, and experience negative emotions in social situations.


Thus far, we have reported empirical findings on the consequences of approach and avoidance motivation separately. In the next section, we will address how the interplay of approach and avoidance motivation in the affiliative domain might affect attention, reactions to positive and negative outcomes, social behavior, and subjective well-being. As we discussed above, one of our main assumptions is that approach and avoidance motivation are two independent motivational systems that can be activated simultaneously and result in four possible combinations (see Table 1). We assume that approach dominance results from a high social approach motive coupled with a low avoidance motive. Because of the predominance of social approach motivation, the consequences of the social motivation should be basically the same for this group as discussed above in terms of a high approach motivation. Similarly, avoidance dominance results from a low social approach motive coupled with a high avoidance motive with the same consequences as discussed in terms of a high avoidance motivation. The group with co-occurring motives (high approach/high avoidance) is the most interesting in the present approach, as—with a few noteworthy exceptions (Asendorpf, 1990; Asendorpf & Wilpers, 1998; Lewin, 1935; Mehrabian, 1994)—there is almost no research on the co-occurrence of approach and avoidance motivation and on the question of which role it plays in the transition into adulthood. Our discussion will therefore focus mainly on this group. Since a group with low approach and low avoidance affiliation motivation is basically a group of people with a generally low affiliation motivation, they should be generally less sensitive to social as compared to other stimuli and their behavior should mainly be directed by other motives. Therefore, we will not discuss this group any further.

Approach–Avoidance Co-occurrence

When both approach and avoidance motivation are high, equally high sensitivity to positive and negative incentives should result. Therefore, people holding concurrent motives might be highly likely to perceive positive (acceptance) and negative (rejection) social incentives in a given social situation. There are mainly two possibilities of how this dual focus may be cognitively processed. One possibility is a simultaneous perception and integration of both positive and negative aspects of a given social situation. The other possibility is a fluctuation between positive and negative interpretations of the same stimuli. For instance, the smile of a new colleague can be interpreted as making fun of my impossibly clumsy social behavior or as friendliness and a sign of inviting interaction.

Either way, in principle, the effects of having both approach and avoidance tendencies might be beneficial because perceiving both positive and negative aspects of social situations could lead to behavioral strategies that simultaneously maximise positive incentives and minimise negative ones. Sokolowski and Heckhausen (2006) hold that co-activation is a regulation mechanism for negotiating distance and proximity, which is destabilised if one of the components is too dominant. However, perceiving both positive and negative aspects of a given situation could also be disadvantageous if it leads to information overload and emotional as well as behavioral ambiguity. If there are multiple situational cues pointing in different behavioral directions, confusion may result. To which of the many salient acceptance- and rejection-relevant cues should one respond in a given situation? Should one keep a low profile, not risking rejection? Or should one gain social approval and acceptance with socially engaging behaviors? Clearly, both kinds of strategies cannot be executed at the same time. A person who is socially active and forthcoming risks rejection, and a person who is quiet and passive might be easily overlooked. A behavioral strategy conforming to one of the motivational tendencies is likely to be incompatible with the other one, leaving the person in a dilemma as to what to do (cf. Lewin, 1935).

Similar to attentional processes, an approach–avoidance co-occurrence might be associated with both positive and negative affective responses to social situations. This might be the case because—as is true for approach motivation—cheerfulness-related emotions are expected to follow the presence of and dejection-related emotions the absence of positive outcomes, whereas—as is true for avoidance motivation—agitation-related emotions follow the presence of and quiescence-related emotions the absence of negative outcomes. The emotional experience might fluctuate between positive and negative states resulting from an alternating attentional focus on signs of rejection and acceptance. As a result, the person might feel torn between elation and apprehension, between hope and fear.

Whereas we proposed that approach dominance is positively and avoidance dominance negatively related to subjective well-being, it is less clear how approach–avoidance co-occurrence relates to subjective well-being. Does approach–avoidance co-occurrence lead to lower well-being because of its conflicting characteristics? Or is approach motivation beneficial irrespective of other motivational tendencies, and does it therefore have an additive (i.e. compensatory) positive influence on subjective well-being?1

Research on affiliative tendencies (approach motivation) and sensitivity to rejection (avoidance motivation; Mehrabian, 1994) provides some evidence for the notion that approach–avoidance co-occurrence might be more beneficial for subjective well-being than avoidance dominance. Affiliative tendency is defined by generalised positive social expectations and behaviors (corresponding with social approach motivation), sensitivity to rejection by generalised negative social expectations and behaviors (corresponding with social avoidance motivation). When assessed via self-report, approach and avoidance scales were independent (correlations of .09 and .04, respectively; see Mehrabian, 1994) and their combinations were related to different outcomes. High affiliative tendency/low sensitivity to rejection correlated with popularity, low affiliative tendency/high sensitivity to rejection with loneliness, and high affiliative tendency/high sensitivity to rejection with dependency on others. Thus, dependency combines affiliative (approach) and insecure (avoidant) traits in equal degrees. Though dependent persons are afraid of and easily hurt by negative feedback from others and they tend to be reliant on familiar others, they are friendly and outgoing at the same time. This should be more beneficial for affiliation-need satisfaction and, in turn, for subjective well-being than the tendency to be unaffiliative of predominantly avoidant-motivated individuals (Mehrabian, 1994).

Further evidence for this assumption comes from studies by Asendorpf on shyness (1989, 1990; Asendorpf & Wilpers, 1998). Asendorpf suggests that shyness is characterised by mixed feelings that reflect a motivational approach–avoidance conflict. Shy people are not only motivated to approach others but also motivated to avoid them. Avoidance describes social inhibition, that is, emotional inhibition of behavior that serves to initiate or to continue social interaction (Asendorpf, 1989). As an approach–avoidance conflict, shyness is accompanied by ambivalent emotions comprising feelings of high embarrassment and fear, but also of high interest and moderate enjoyment that are, in sum, not experienced unpleasantly (Mosher & White, 1981). This emotional experience is more positive than the pure fear and anxious tenseness of predominantly avoidant-motivated individuals. However, there are differences between state and trait shyness. Though reports of happiness increase with state shyness, they are negatively correlated with trait shyness (Asendorpf, 1989). Consequently, weak or moderate approach–avoidance motivation might be associated with relatively positive emotional experience. However, the stronger the approach–avoidance motivation is, the less beneficial it might be for subjective well-being, probably as a consequence of its highly ambivalent character.

In sum, approach–avoidance co-occurrence might lead to high sensitivity to positive and negative incentives in a given social situation that is associated with an ambivalent behavior tendency and the corresponding emotional experience. The motivation to socialise with others is not only accompanied by feelings of embarrassment and fear but also by interest and enjoyment that might be more beneficial for subjective well-being than the predominant avoidance tendency, which hinders individuals to affiliate and is associated with high negative affect in social situations. However, this benefit is the case only for weak or moderate approach–avoidance motivation. Strong trait approach–avoidance motivation might lead to highly ambivalent experiences and therefore to a decrease in subjective well-being.


What role do social motives play in a successful transition into adulthood? As elaborated above, social motivation might be of particular importance during a transition phase (e.g. leaving home for college) when new social roles need to be taken over and new social relations have to be established (Arnett, 2000; Erikson, 1968; Gullotta et al., 1990; Havighurst, 1972; Lerner & Galambos, 1998). During such a transition, individual differences in social motives might become more important for social experience and behavior, as reliance on already established relationships with known parameters of how one is perceived by one's social partners and how well one is liked is no longer possible. Leaving the dependency and relative security of childhood and adolescence and having not yet entered the normative responsibilities of adulthood provides a variety of possible life directions. On the one hand, this leads to less constraints and a greater scope for exploring possibilities than in any other period of the life course (Arnett, 2000). On the other hand, there are a number of developmental tasks such as establishing autonomy from the parental home, finding a romantic partner, building and maintaining friendships with peers, and progressing towards a job. Most of these tasks are social in nature and are connected to an increasing number of new social partners (see Lang, 2004). Thus, there are many new social situations in which action is required but not prescribed and where the interaction partners are not well known. Clearly, those young adults who have a high social approach motive should fare much better when entering new social circles. They perceive their social environment generally as welcoming and positive, as an opportunity for affiliation and belonging. Avoidance-motivated young adults, in contrast, should have a much harder time as they perceive their social environment as potentially hostile and filled with the risk of being rejected.

In fact, a number of studies show that young adults high in rejection sensitivity (social avoidance motivation), in contrast to those who expect acceptance from others, experience more troubled and dissatisfying relationships that end sooner (e.g. Downey et al., 1998; Simpson, Ickes, & Grich, 1999) and are more susceptible to loneliness, social anxiety, and depression following rejection (e.g. Ayduk, Downey, & Kim, 2001; Baldwin, 1994; Kobak & Sceery, 1988; Shaver & Hazan, 1987). In other words, avoidant-motivated individuals are likely to have turbulent and unstable relationships and/or suffer from loneliness and low subjective well-being. This pattern might be particularly detrimental for young adults when they experience disappointing social interactions as a consequence of their avoidant behavior, without the daily reassurance of their families as social interaction partners. Ultimately, these interactions lead to even higher sensitivity for signs of rejection, which may result in loneliness and a self-concept of being unworthy and undesirable. In contrast, approach-motivated young adults who, as a consequence of their positive social behaviors, are also more likely to have positive social experiences, might maintain these relationships and anticipate rewarding relationships in the future (in terms of relational schemata as cognitive structures representing regularities in patterns of interpersonal relatedness; see Baldwin, 1992). Accordingly, half of the participants in a recent study on emerging adulthood by Gottlieb and colleagues (Gottlieb, Still, & Newby-Clark, 2007) reported positive development in their relating to others. As approach motivation leads to higher social success, it is likely that the social strategies used by the emerging adults in the Gottlieb et al. study were approach-related strategies.

Not only in the social but also in the work domain, young adults are more successful if they are high in interpersonal connectedness and positive emotional responsiveness than if not. In a longitudinal study on work experiences and personality development in young adulthood by Roberts, Caspi, and Moffitt (2003), self-reported positive emotionality and communion at age 18 were positively related to occupational attainment, work satisfaction, and financial security at age 26. Interestingly, positive emotionality/communion showed even stronger relations to work stimulation than achievement or power. Warm, sociable young adults get jobs where they can learn new things and share this knowledge with others. Roberts et al. concluded that socially apt young people achieve more in their early careers than others, strongly supporting the idea of approach motivation as a predictor not only of social but also work-related success.

In the same study, 18-year-olds high in negative emotionality/alienation, characterised by feelings of hopelessness, and feeling deceived and mistreated by others, were likely to experience a turbulent and unsuccessful transition into work. According to the authors, alienated adolescents might be trapped in a self-fulfilling vicious cycle. Although alienation is not identical to social avoidance motivation, feelings of anxiety, fear, and distrust are common features in both. Thus, the study by Roberts and colleagues provides some support for the assumption that high social avoidance motivation might lead to less success in the work domain.

Another interesting domain is the transition from high school to college, because old relationships decline both in number and quality, and new relationships have to be developed (Asendorpf & Wilpers, 1998; Shaver, Furman, & Buhrmester, 1985), which is a challenging task for many students as evidenced by research on loneliness. Cutrona (1982) found that two weeks after the beginning of the school year, 75 per cent of the new students had experienced at least occasional and 40 per cent even moderate to severe loneliness. That the experience is due to the transition and not to college life in general can be inferred from the finding that most students (75%) were socially well adjusted by the end of the school year. This finding also implies, however, that a substantial number (25%) of the freshmen reported having experienced loneliness in the previous two weeks. Interestingly, they did not attribute their loneliness to lack of opportunities to meet people or to other people not trying to make friends. Instead, they thought that they were lonely because of their shyness, their fear of rejection, their own personality, and their lack of knowledge of how to initiate friendships. Regarding their personality characteristics, lonely students had lower affiliative tendencies and were more sensitive to rejection than others (measured by the Mehrabian scales; Mehrabian, 1970). Thus, they were predominantly avoidance motivated. Students who overcame their loneliness by the end of the year most often reported having gradually made friends with the people around them. This result is in line with findings by Asendorpf and Wilpers (1998). In their study of social relations during the same transition period, they found that students high in shyness showed a much slower growth of their peer network than students low in shyness. However, shy students’ peer network was still growing in their second year, while the social network of students low in shyness seemed to have reached a point of saturation and did not grow further.

As elaborated above, shyness can be characterised as an approach–avoidance conflict. One could speculate that the students in both samples reported above—the students who overcame their loneliness in Cutrona's study and the shy students in the study by Asendorpf and Wilpers—had a co-occurrent approach and avoidance motivation. This might have led initially to problems finding social contacts due to their avoidance motivation. Due to their approach motivation, however, these students were also motivated to persevere in their efforts to socialise and make new friends. As it takes some time to make new friends, persistence in such efforts seems a key variable in overcoming loneliness in a new social context. In contrast, the students who remained lonely in Cutrona's study reported having changed or lowered their initial goals for desired relationships. Thus, they probably also lowered their efforts to socialise. This interpretation is also in line with our suggestion that, from a long-term perspective, approach–avoidance co-occurrence might have more positive consequences for social success and well-being than avoidance dominance.

Another argument for this suggestion is that young adults high on both approach and avoidance motivation are probably likely to show a less stable pattern of social behavior than the predominant approach-motivated and avoidance-motivated group. As approach–avoidance co-occurrence is associated with high sensitivity to both positive and negative social incentives, this kind of motivation should be more situationally dependent than a dominant approach or avoidance motivation. If the social situation is clearly positive or negative, individuals will experience it positively or negatively, respectively, independent of their social approach and avoidance motivation. However, in situations where social stimuli are ambiguous or mixed, the predominant social motivation determines the general evaluation of the situation. In cases of approach–avoidance co-occurrence, however, no predominant motivation exists, resulting in an unstable general evaluation of the situation and, therefore, insecurity regarding the valence and interpretation of the situation. Also, it is likely that there is more variability across situations—while approach motivation might outweigh in some, avoidance motivation might be more dominant in others. As a consequence, approach–avoidance co-occurrence might lead to less stable relational schemata than either approach or avoidance predominance. On the one hand, then, approach–avoidance co-occurrence might be more beneficial in the transition into adulthood than avoidance predominance, because it is more malleable and offers more possibilities to experience positive social interactions and relationships. Due to the instability across time and situations, however, approach–avoidant motivated individuals might be experienced by others as less predictable, making them less desirable social interaction partners. Consequently, approach–avoidance-motivated individuals might elicit positive as well as negative reactions in their social partners. There is some support for this suggestion in the research on dependency and shyness that are both characterised by approach–avoidance co-occurrence (as described in previous sections). Dependent individuals were found to be seen by others as submissive but loving (Mongrain, Lubbers, & Struthers, 2004), that is, somewhat negative and positive at the same time. Similarly, although shyness as a separate characteristic is evaluated negatively, shy people are evaluated as neither socially desirable nor undesirable (Göttert & Asendorpf, 1989), because they hold negatively, neutrally, and positively evaluated characteristics (e.g. absence of aggression).

An additional factor for outcomes of approach–avoidance co-occurrence might be the strength of both motivations. If both motivations are at a middle level, individuals are likely to perceive positive and negative situational cues without being highly aroused and torn between strong ambivalent behavioral tendencies. Consequently, they can choose an appropriate behavioral strategy adapted to the particular situation. The stronger the approach and avoidance motivation, however, the higher the resulting arousal and the stronger the ambivalence. Consequently, this might lead to fluctuating tendencies or to feeling unable to respond at all due to conflicting tendencies, leading to less successful outcomes. Mastering the challenges of the transition into young adulthood, then, might not only depend on the valence of the social motivation (approach–avoid), but, particularly in the case of co-occurring approach and avoidance motivation, also on the strength of their motivational tendencies.

In sum, social motivation is likely to play an important role in mastering the demands and challenges during the transition into adulthood. Social motivation does not only influence social interactions but also success in the work domain. Regarding the development of social motivation, a predominant approach or avoidance motivation might become even more stable over the course of the transition, while approach–avoidance co-occurrence might lead to changes and instability. This instability is probably associated with lower subjective well-being than social approach dominance but higher than avoidance dominance, leaving the individual possibilities for positive experiences and affiliation-need satisfaction in social relationships and interactions. Moreover, approach–avoidance co-occurrence seems to lead not to immediate but to somewhat postponed social success, with slow but enduring growth of the peer network. In addition, the outcomes of approach–avoidance co-occurrence might be moderated by the strength of both tendencies.


Returning to the example of the young woman entering her first class at college, we can now describe what happens to her cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally. Assuming conflicting motivational tendencies, the new and unstructured social situation will activate both dispositional approach and avoidance tendencies and concomitant emotional experiences of hope and fear. Whereas approach tendencies lead to approach-related behavior (e.g. trying to speak to another student), ambiguous cues (e.g. pauses in the conversation) might be experienced as failure, leading to avoidant behavior (e.g. termination of the conversation). At the same time, the activated approach tendency counteracts this avoidant behavior, leading to contradicting cognitive, emotional, and behavioral experiences. The resulting overt behavior might be hesitation or approach, but the underlying processes are clearly different from a predominant avoidance or a predominant approach motivation.

In this paper, we outlined an attempt to specify processes of social approach and avoidance tendencies and their possible cognitive, emotional, and behavioral concomitants and consequences of their role in the transition into young adulthood. Distinguishing social approach and avoidance motives as independent motivational systems that can either dominate or co-occur helps in describing and explaining different patterns of behavior and experience in the transition to adulthood. Previous research has mainly focused on approach and avoidance motivation separately. By considering both tendencies conjointly, we hope to establish a meaningful extension of our understanding of social motivation and offer new perspectives for future research, particularly for the transition into adulthood.

Future research needs to address basic cognitive, emotional, and behavioral concomitants of approach–avoidance predominance and co-occurrence as well as more systematically investigate the complex behavior and experience in social situations during the transition into adulthood. This requires a multi-methodological approach including laboratory and field studies. An important research question also concerns interindividual differences in intraindividual developmental trajectories of social approach, social avoidance, and approach–avoidance co-occurrence.


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    This does not mean that the resulting tendency of approach and avoidance motivation is an algebraic sum of both. Rather, as literature on “negativity bias” (e.g. Ito, Larsen, Smith, & Cacioppo, 1998; Rozin & Royzman, 2001) suggests, avoidance motivation might have “negativity dominance” (i.e. avoidance motivation might have a stronger negative impact on well-being than approach motivation a positive impact). This might shift the resulting well-being more to the negative pole.