Experimental Science of Human Motivations and Relations


One of the most intuitive responses to anxiety is hostility. It can provide potent relief from the anxiety aroused by frustration, at least in the short term, because it activates approach motivation which suppresses anxiety (recall
from the Desire and Anxiety sections that the subsystems are reciprocally active). Relying on hostility can accordingly become a rewarding habit. But in the longer term hostility is not adaptive. Chronically coping with anxiety by becoming hostile impedes relationship goals and capacity for cooperation, leading to more anxiety and more hostility and so on. Various forms of hostility from revenge to moral outrage and derogation of deviants may be fueled by this basic motivational dynamic, despite more reasonable sounding justifications. Based on this understanding of hostility as a reactive approach motivation (RAM) response to anxiety, recent research in our lab headed by our collaborator, Dr. Karina Schumann, has discovered that it is relatively easy to subvert the anxiety-to-hostility habit and redirect it toward other, more prosocial modes of RAM. We’ve repeatedly found that if participants are given a prosocial value to focus on before a frustration or uncertainty-related threat, then instead of becoming reactively hostile they become reactively magnanimous. It seems that it doesn’t matter what one approaches in the face of anxiety—approaching hostility or approaching ideals of magnanimity are alternative ways to activate the approach motivation system for anxiety relief (see also Morality, Religion, and Extremes sections, below, for more on this line of work). ​

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