Experimental Science of Human Motivations and Relations


Taking decisive action can powerfully relieve anxiety. If the actions are unrelated to the source of the anxiety, they are called displacement behaviors (e.g., compulsively running, tail-chasing, grooming, eating, or vocalizing in other animals). The compulsive action relieves anxiety by activating approach motivated states (see section on Desire and Anxiety).
Humans can engage in this kind of concrete activity to relieve anxiety just like other animals (e.g., shopping, eating, drinking, gambling, exercising, grooming, working), but we can also focus on ideals and other abstractions as another
way to activate approach motivated states for relief from anxiety. In our last 9 years of research on reactive approach motivation, we have found a close linkage between decisive action and idealistic devotion.  Ideals are abstract goals that activate the same approach motivation-related processes as concrete goals can. Thus, people react to anxiety by becoming both more determined toward their concrete goals and more devoted to their idealistic convictions. Research by Michael Hogg and colleagues shows that when people are anxious they are especially attracted to idealistic groups that also help them feel powerful and active. These are the basic dynamics that we think drive the appeal of radical political and religious groups for marginalized young people. Devotion to an idealistic and active cause provides powerful relief from anxiety and thus feels right. We are also currently exploring the dynamics of ideals and action in the context of global warming, trying to figure out circumstances under which anxieties about climate change will make people willing to actually take action in addition to making moral claims about the need for environmental action. When action seems difficult, people sometimes substitute ideals for action. Thus, in anxious circumstances lofty idealism may sometimes serve to make people happy hypocrites. Focusing on moral convictions can sometimes be enough to relieve
anxiety, even if action does not follow. 

*Note: to see in context of other research topics in ourlab, click on the RESEARCH link at the top of this page.