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Motivational Conflicts

Sometimes the urge to do something worthy or good or pleasurable is opposed by the fact that it involves pain or inconvenience or hard work. Then the organism is in conflict between two opposite motives.

That is one form of motivational conflict called an approach/avoidance conflict. One feels pulled in two different pleasures, attracted and repulsed by the same event.

That is one of the classic motivational conflicts. The simplest three are these:

1. Approach/avoidance conflicts. The organism is attracted and repulsed by elements of the same situation.

2. Approach/approach conflicts. The organism is forced to choose between two desirable outcomes that are mutually exclusive (i.e. only one can be picked).

3. Avoidance/avoidance conflicts. The organism is forced to choose between two different undesirable outcomes.

What are the classic motivational conflicts?

During the Hull era, research with laboratory rats showed that avoidance tendencies grow stronger as an event approaches. You might be able to observe this in your own life.

A distant event such as a dentist appointment or job interview seems desirable. You make plans for it.

But as the day approaches, the event seems less desirable, or you are more inclined to avoid it. This can happen with desirable goals as well as things you would rather avoid: it is known informally as "getting cold feet."

What sort of behavior is common in situations of motivational conflict?

Vacillation (going back and forth) is typical in situations of motivational conflict. If you are attracted to a person (an approach tendency) but feel shy and inhibited (an avoidance tendency) you may "go back and forth" a lot, in your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

This phenomenon is found in all control systems where opponent processes are used. In that context, it is called oscillating instead of vacillating.

Control systems oscillate when two opposing forces take turns dominating activity. For example, the speed of a car (when speed control is engaged) will gently oscillate as controllers speed up and slow down the car to keep it in a narrow goal range.

Approach/avoidance conflicts cause an animal to be torn between opposite forces. Animals caught between strong but opposite drive states may vacillate, going one way then the other.

Try to tempt a semi-tame squirrel with a peanut, and you will probably observe some vacillation. You are a potential predator, but the peanut is a desirable food, so the squirrel has an approach/avoidance conflict.

Approach-approach conflicts involve a choice between two desirable (but mutually exclusive) goals. Sitting in front of a display of merchandise, when you can only afford to buy one thing, you may find yourself engaged in a displacement activity such as scratching your head.

An important form of conflict we will discuss later is that between large late rewards and short early rewards (for example: studying vs. messaging friends). This is a form of approach/­approach conflict, important because it can undermine long-term goals.

What are signs of strong motivational conflicts in animals?

Avoidance-avoidance conflicts involve choosing "the lesser of two evils." Animals caught between a fire and a river must choose which to face. They are likely to show signs of distress, jumping around, pawing the ground, or vocalizing until they plunge into the river.

Strong motivational conflicts may be accompanied by signs of autonomic nervous system arousal: sweating, nervousness, blushing, and defecating. Rat researchers count rat droppings as a way of quantifying (attaching a number to) the level of anxiety in rats.

Stress-Induced Behavior

Mild stress produces a state of activation that can affect virtually any behavior (Antelman & Caggiula, 1980). Note the word mild.

The ideal way to create mild stress in a rat is to pinch its tail gently. The tail-pinch is not painful. If researchers make a tail-pinch painful by increasing its intensity, the rat's behavior becomes disorganized. Under extreme stress, animals are not activated; they may freeze.

However, given a mild tail pinch, a rat becomes activated. After a tail-pinch, a rat with access to food and water will start eating or drinking within a few seconds, even if it is full. Rats can be made obese this way, suggesting an analogy to stress-induced eating in humans.

Stress-induced behavior can involve virtually any behavior. A tail-pinched female rat will mother babies, if babies are present. If another rat is present, it may attack the other rat. Classical conditioning occurs faster and is remembered longer after a low-intensity tail shock (Shors, Weiss, & Thompson, 1992).

The activation caused by mild stress has these effects in rats:

A mild tail-pinch to a rat has what effect?

1. If babies are present, they are mothered

2. If a rival is present, it is attacked

3. If a mate is present, sexual activity is initiated

4. If there is a threat, defense responses are activated

5. If a pest is present, it is threatened

6. If food is present, it is eaten

7. If water is present, it is drunk

How does this resurrect one of Hull's concepts?

The concept of stress-induced behavior resembles one of Hull's main concepts (one he borrowed from earlier psychologists): that of a drive state in which all behaviors are activated. Apparently mild stress acts like Hullian drive.

Students should be able to believe that. Under the mild stress of an approaching examination or term paper deadline, previously impossible behaviors are suddenly activated.

How can stress produce a state similar to Hullian drive?

Is the tail-pinch somehow unique as a stressor? Apparently it is not. Antelman and Caggiula (1980) cite studies showing that any form of stress seems to make any behavior more likely, with the behavior depending on context.

Brehm and Self (1989) refer to this concept as motivational arousal. Motivational arousal, they say, is increased by needs and mild stresses of all types. For example, in humans, the expectation that a task will be difficult increases motivational arousal.

We all know the feeling: it is called rallying yourself. It occurs when you know a big task lies ahead. If you are responsible for planning a long trip, for example, you may feel the tension building as you make sure all the elements are in place for a safe and convenient voyage.

What is "motivational arousal"?

The exact form of behavior resulting from stress depends on the individual and the situation. If you eat when you are stressed, it is stress-induced eating.

If you fight, it is stress-induced aggression. If you are a human who channels stress into constructive activity, you may seem uncommonly motivated or driven when influenced by mild stress.


Antelman, S. M. & Caggiula, A. R.. 1980. Stress-induced behavior: Chemotherapy without drugs. In J. M. Davidson and R. J. Davidson (Eds.), The Psychobiology of Consciousness. Pp. 65-104. New York: Plenum Press.

Shors, T. J., Weiss, C., & Thompson, R. F. (1992). Stress-induced facilitation of classical conditioning. Science, 257, 537-539.

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