Charles S. Carver

Behavioral Approach and Avoidance Systems [last edited 2-20-15]

Several theorists have argued that two general motivational systems underlie animal behavior, including the behavior of humans. A behavioral approach system is believed to regulate appetitive motives, in which the goal is to move toward something desired. A behavioral avoidance (or inhibition) system is said to regulate aversive motives, in which the goal is to move away from something unpleasant. Several years ago, a former student and I published scales designed to assess individual differences in the sensitivity or responsiveness of these systems in people. These scales should be useful as tools to investigate how these two sorts of motive systems influence human behavior in a variety of contexts.  My colleague Sheri Johnson also explores how these ideas have relevance to understanding aspects of serious psychopathology.

I have used these scales as a tool to examine what I think is a fundamental question in the origin of affect: whether all negative affects have their origins in the avoidance system (as some theories hold), or whether some negative affects trace to the approach system, as the Carver and Scheier (1998) self-regulatory model suggests.  Using the BIS/BAS scales, I obtained evidence linking frustration, anger, and sadness to approach processes. The article reporting those findings (Carver, 2004, below) also discusses the functional properties of these affects in the context of approach.

More recently, I have collaborated with Eddie Harmon-Jones of University of New South Wales in a review of a broader range of literature bearing on that question. We have concluded that a great deal of evidence supports the position that anger is an approach-related affect. The article reporting that review of evidence and considering some of their implications was published in Psychological Bulletin in 2009 (Carver & Harmon-Jones, 2009, below).

Another application of this line of thought examined how approach and avoidance processes yield distinct affective experiences in the context of intimate relationships (Laurenceau et al., 2005, below). This study did not examine individual differences, but rather normative approach goals (intimacy) and avoidance "anti-goals" (conflict) and how progress with respect to them relates to specific affects. More recently, the two lines of thought have been further integrated, in the development of a set of self-report scales that measure individual differences in threat and incentive salience in intimate relationships (Laurenceau et al., 2010, below). This measure is called Relationship Incentive and Threat Sensitivity Scales (RITSS). [measure]

For more recent publications pertaining to this work, please search on my Publications page.

Laurenceau, J-P., Kleinman, B. M., Kaczynski, K. J., & Carver, C. S. (2010). Assessment of relationship-specific incentive and threat sensitivities: Predicting satisfaction and affect in adult intimate relationships. Psychological Assessment, 22, 407-419.   [abstract]

Carver, C. S., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2009). Anger is an approach-related affect: Evidence and implications. Psychological Bulletin, 135, 183-204.   [abstract]

Laurenceau, J-P., Troy, A. B., & Carver, C. S. (2005). Two distinct emotional experiences in romantic relationships: Effects of perceptions regarding approach of intimacy and avoidance of conflict. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 1123-1133.   [abstract]

Carver, C. S. (2004). Negative affects deriving from the behavioral approach system. Emotion, 4, 3-22.    [abstract]

Carver, C. S.  (2001).  Affect and the functional bases of behavior:  On the dimensional structure of affective experience.  Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5, 345-356   [abstract]

Carver, C. S., Meyer, B., & Antoni, M. H.  (2000). Responsiveness to threats and incentives, expectancy of recurrence, and distress and disengagement:  Moderator effects in early-stage breast cancer patients.  Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 68, 965-975.   [abstract]

Carver, C. S., & White, T. L. (1994). Behavioral inhibition, behavioral activation, and affective responses to impending reward and punishment: The BIS/BAS scales. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 319-333. [abstract]

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