Experimental Science of Human Motivations and Relations

Desire and Anxiety

The first Noble Truths of Buddhism state that anxiety (Dukkha) arises from conflicted desire. Contemporary scientific research is consistent with this claim. Desire and anxiety come from evolutionarily old and closely linked neural sub-systems. Their joint dynamics powerfully affect the way people relate to each other and are foundational for the social phenomena we research in our lab. 

Desire (or approach motivation as we usually refer to it) orients people toward what they want, and keeps them focused until they get it. Anxiety, on the other hand, helps people disengage and shift to more viable alternative goals when focal goals are impeded. These approach and anxiety systems are often reciprocally active. They toggle back and forth according to goal progress. When goals are going well the approach system prevails and suppresses the anxiety system. This feels great and liberates full engagement in focal goals. Importantly, when people are in highly approach motivated states, goal-irrelevant perceptions (sometimes including other people or perspectives) are automatically excluded from awareness. If goals are significantly impeded by uncertainty or frustration, however, then the anxiety system kicks in to inhibit the approach system. The anxiety system then puts the brakes on action, and makes people vigilant in the relevant (often self-focused) domain for further problems, or for alternative courses of action that might work better. Once an alternative is engaged, the approach system can once again prevail and turn down the anxiety system, and so on. 

Highly active approach motivation rivets attention onto personal priorities which helps accomplish goals, but it can also cause egocentricity and sabotage perspective-taking and capacity for cooperative social relations. One of the most important findings in our research has been that some people habitually cope with anxiety by throwing themselves into eager goals or ideals in order to powerfully activate approach motivated states. Doing so serves to turn down the eliciting anxiety. We refer to this tendency as reactive approach motivation (RAM). RAM can be accomplished by orienting toward desires that are personal or social, and concrete or idealistic. An example of the concrete-personal category is food, of concrete-social is physical affection, of idealistic-personal is perfectionism, and of idealistic-social is devotion to an ideology or worldview. Thus, basic RAM processes can affect a wide array of phenomena in the face of anxiety. People will turn to whatever opportunity is most salient.

Though effective at relieving anxiety in the short-term, RAM can impair perspective and judgment, contributing to even more anxiety over time as the impairment undermines effectiveness and leads to more goal frustration. People who are insecure in their close personal relationships to start with are particularly inclined to react to anxious circumstances by becoming more extremely self-focused and preoccupied with their own perspectives, which can further undermine their relationship goals and relationship security. In contrast, people with secure and trusting close relationships tend to be relatively immune to these antisocial effects of RAM. They do not feel anxieties as poignantly and they also tend to become eagerly relationship focused instead of egocentric and antisocial in anxious circumstances. As a result, by some measures the relationships of secure people tend to become even better in anxious circumstances. ‚Äč

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