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Towards and Away from, what does Motivational Theory say?

February 28, 2019
Jaap Hollander

I am still working on comparisons between meta programs and concepts in mainstream science. Last time a covered proactive and reactive, today I continue with towards versus away from.

As you know, the meta program ‘Towards’ is defined as a focus on achieving goals, while its opposite ‘Away From’ is defined as a  focus on avoiding problems.

Approach and avoidance
Concepts related to ‘Towards/Away from thinking’ are ‘Approach/Avoidance’ motivation and ‘Goal Achievement Motivation’. Both have a long history in science. Models of Goal Achievement Motivation tend to offer a more fine grained view of motivation than the simple ‘Towards’ versus ‘Away from’ distinction. Although Atkinson (1957) does remark that "achievement motivation and fear of failure may be defined simply as the generalised desire to succeed and the generalised desire to avoid failure, respectively". So theoretically speaking it looks like we have the basics covered with our meta programs. 

The distinction between approach and avoidance motivation can be found in ancient Greek philosophy. The ethical hedonism of Democritus (460-370 BC) and Aristippus (430-360 BC) proscribed the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain as the primary guide for human conduct (Elliot, 1999). In psychology, few phenomena are more fundamental than approach and avoidance motivations, which have been implicated in a wide range of psychological processes (e.g., Cacioppo 1999; Elliot & Church, 1997; Higgins, 1997) and are shared across a diverse array of species (Elliot, 1999).

Approach and avoidance motivation “is composed of three … components. Approach indicates a propensity to move toward (or maintain contact with) a desired stimulus. Avoidance indicates a propensity to move away from (or maintain distance from) an undesired stimulus. Motivation is defined as the energization and direction of behavior. The valence of stimuli is at the core of the distinction between approach and avoidance, with positively valenced stimuli typically leading to approach and negatively valenced stimuli typically leading to avoidance. Stimuli can be external or internal, implicit or explicit, conscious or non-conscious.” (Seel, 2012).

Hierarchical models

Goal Achievement Motivation is often seen as having two hierarchical levels. In the beginning of the last century McDougal (1908, 1932) linked specific ‘Desired goals’ to more generalised ‘Preferences’ (initially called ‘instincts’). Personality theorists later proposed hierarchical models of motivation in which goal concepts (Pervin, 1989) are seen as concrete representations of more abstract ‘motivational dispositions’ (Cattell, 1957; Emmons, 1989; McClelland, 1951; Murray, 1938; Nuttin, 1984; Rotter, 1954). In this tradition, goal concepts are situated between global motivational dispositions and specific behaviors. Goal concepts are the direct regulators of behaviour, and motivational dispositions have an indirect influence.

The difference between performance and mastery
Later motivation theorists (Elliot, 1994, 1997, Elliot and Church, 1997) have taken into account the distinction between ‘performance motivation’ and ‘mastery motivation’. In setting performance goals, people focus on demonstrating their competence to others. In setting mastery goals, they focus on improving their competence for the sake of feeling competent. Combining approach/avoidance motivation with performance/mastery motivation, three types of goals are delineated: 1. mastery goals (focused on attaining competence), 2. performance-approach goals (focused on attaining normative competence, i.e. being competent as seen by others) and 3. performance-avoidance goals (focused on avoiding normative incompetence). It is unclear why Elliot and Church do not define a logical fourth category: mastery-avoidance goals. These would be goals focussed on avoiding incompetence as judged by oneself. From a meta program perspective, there is no reason to leave this fourth category undefined.

What's the same and what's different?
When we compare the towards and away from meta programs with mainstream conceptualisations of approach avoidance and achievement motivation, we see the following similarities and differences.

a. The towards/away distinction in meta programs is practically synonymous with the approach/avoidance distinction. ‘Moving towards a desired stimulus’ and ‘moving away from an undesired stimulus’ could serve as definitions of ‘towards’ and ‘away from’ thinking.

b. In goal achievement motivation theory two hierarchical levels are distinguished: a. global motivational disposition and b. specific goals. The meta programs towards and away from do not make that distinction. This difference is, however, closely related to another set of meta programs: general and specific. In terms of meta programs a global motivational disposition would be coded als ‘towards plus general’ or away from plus general’, while specific goals would be coded as ‘towards plus specific’ or away from plus specific’.

c. Something similar can be said about the three types of goals motivation theory: 1. mastery goals, 2. performance-approach goals and 3. performance-avoidance. The meta programs towards and away from do not, in and of themselves, distinguish between mastery and performance. This difference is however closely related to yet another meta program: internal reference (using your own judgement), versus external reference (relying on other’s judgements). In terms of meta programs a mastery goal word be coded as ‘towards plus internal reference’, a performance-approach goal would be coded as ‘towards plus external reference’ and a performance-avoidance goal would be coded as ‘away from plus external reference’.

d. The fourth combination of approach/avoidance plus mastery/performance, omitted by Elliot and Church (1997) would be mastery-avoidance goals. In terms of meta programs these would be coded as ‘towards plus internal reference’. This would be wanting to avoid the negative feelings about oneself when perceiving oneself to be incompetent at some task.

e. When motivation theorists add the mastery/performance distinction to their model, they are limiting the context to tasks. The meta programs towards and away from are not limited to tasks, just as the approach/avoidance distinction is not.

About the author 

Jaap Hollander

Psychologist, living in the Netherlands. Founded MindSonar in 1995. Directs MindSonar Global, which manages the ICT development, applications and the curriculum of the MS Certification Trainings. Working part time as a trainer, writer and coach as well as being an expressionist painter (artist name JAAPH, see jaaph.com). Has written 10 books on NLP and Provocative Coaching.

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