Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Approaching Happiness: The Importance of Social Goals

The last time you went on a date or hung out with a new friend, what thoughts were going through your mind as you got ready? Were you thinking things like “I hope I have a great time tonight!” and “I hope we have a really good connection,” or were your thoughts more along the lines of “I hope I don’t make a fool out of myself” and “I hope we aren’t bored with each other”? 

These different types of thoughts represent your social goals—that is, what you hope to get out of your relationships. Thoughts such as hoping to have a great time focus on maximizing the positive outcomes in your relationships and are called approach social goals. In contrast, thoughts such as hoping not to make a fool of yourself focus on minimizing the negative outcomes in your relationships and are called avoidance social goals. We have social goals when we enter into new relationships, but we also have social goals for our current relationships. If you think about spending time with your close friends over the next few weeks, you could think about growing closer to your friends and having new, fun, experiences together or you could think about steering clear of fights and avoiding being rejected by your friends. Social goals also come into play in specific moments. When you and your partner discuss divvying up chores, you could be focused on how to guide the conversation so that both of you end up satisfied with the result, or you could be focused on figuring out a way to divvy them up so that neither of you is completely dissatisfied with the outcome.

Approach and Avoidance Goals are not Mutually Exclusive
Some of you may be thinking “But I have both types of thoughts!” and you are right. You can have high or low approach social goals and you can have high or low avoidance social goals. For example, someone with high approach social goals and high avoidance social goals would be thinking both about having fun with their friends and about avoiding being humiliated or rejected by them.

Recently researchers have looked at these social goals in close relationships and found that approach social goals and avoidance social goals are related to very different relationship outcomes. In other words, something as subtle as whether you hope that you and your partner are very satisfied with how you divide up chores or you hope that neither of you is completely dissatisfied with the division has important implications for how happy you are in your relationships.

                                                  The Benefit of Approach Social Goals
People who have more approach goals for their relationships are more satisfied with their social lives and feel less lonely than people who have fewer approach goals (Gable, 2006). In other research on goals in romantic relationships, people who had higher approach goals were more satisfied with their relationships and didn’t experience the same declines in sexual desire over time as people who were lower in approach social goals. Importantly, approach goals had the biggest benefits for people’s romantic relationship outcomes when both relationship partners had high approach goals. These people were more satisfied with their relationships, felt closer to their partners, and were less likely to have thought about breaking up. People who have high approach goals aren't the only ones who notice the benefit, when other people watch couples interact, they think partners who are higher in approach goals look more satisfied with their relationships than partners who are lower in approach goals (Impett et al., 2008; Impett et al., 2010).

The Detriment of Avoidance Social Goals
It’s pretty logical that focusing on enhancing the positive in your relationship is a good thing. But what about a focus on minimizing the negative? Does hoping that you don’t get bored or rejected help or hurt your relationships over the long run? Unfortunately, people who focus on avoiding negative outcomes seem to experience exactly what they are trying to avoid. People who have more avoidance social goals are lonelier and more insecure about their relationships than people who have fewer avoidance goals (Gable, 2006).
And this isn’t just because people who are lonelier and more insecure become more concerned about minimizing negative relationship outcomes –people who were higher in avoidance social goals reported more physical health problems several months later and people who were higher in avoidance goals in their romantic relationships became less satisfied with their relationships over time (Elliot et al., 2006; Impett et al., 2010). The power of avoidance goals is potent – if your partner is high in avoidance goals, you are particularly likely to be dissatisfied with your relationship, feel less close to your partner and think more about breaking up with them. And just as people who are higher in approach goals look more satisfied to outside observers, people who are higher in avoidance goals appear to outside observers to be less satisfied than people who are lower in avoidance goals.

Why do Approach and Avoidance Goals Influence our Happiness?
Why do these subtle differences in how we think – whether we focus on being more satisfied or being less dissatisfied, have such important consequences for our relationships? People who focus on maximizing the positive in their relationships are on the lookout for positive events and positive outcomes. They are more likely to create positive experiences in their relationships, and they experience more positive emotions in daily life. They are also less likely to let negative events in their relationships get them down. For people who are higher in avoidance goals, the very thing they are trying to avoid – negative outcomes – is exactly what ends up being the focus of their attention. In an attempt to avoid negative experiences, people who are higher in avoidance goals actually end up remembering more negative information and interpreting more ambiguous situation (such as a friend canceling plans at the last minute) in a negative light (Strachman & Gable, 2006). For example, if someone is worried about avoiding rejection from their friends they will be attentive to any cues that might suggest they are being rejected, which will lead them to see rejection even where it isn’t. And for that person’s friends – who wants to hang around someone that is constantly accusing you of rejecting them? This helps us understand why having a partner who is high in avoidance goals is so detrimental for romantic relationships – its hard to be around someone that is always focusing on the negative. 

So what does this research mean for you? While some people may tend to be more approach-oriented and others may be more avoidance-oriented, ultimately you can choose what types of goals you hold. Making a conscious choice to focus on the rewards in your relationships can help you and your relationship partners have more positive experiences and better relationship outcomes. The next time you go on a date or have to get together with your in-laws, instead of worrying about how to avoid all the things that could go wrong, think about all the things that could go right and you and your partner just might find yourselves having a good time. 

Has there been a time when you were so focused on avoiding negative experiences that you ended up seeing negativity where it didn't exist? Do you have other ideas about why avoidance social goals might be so bad for relationships?

The articles:
  • Gable, S. (2006). Approach and Avoidance Social Motives and Goals Journal of Personality, 74 (1), 175-222 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2005.00373.x
  • Impett, E., Gordon, A., Kogan, A., Oveis, C., Gable, S., & Keltner, D. (2010). Moving toward more perfect unions: Daily and long-term consequences of approach and avoidance goals in romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99 (6), 948-963 DOI: 10.1037/a0020271
  • Impett, E., Strachman, A., Finkel, E., & Gable, S. (2008). Maintaining sexual desire in intimate relationships: The importance of approach goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94 (5), 808-823 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.94.5.808
  • Elliot, A. (2006). Approach and Avoidance Motivation in the Social Domain Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32 (3), 378-391 DOI: 10.1177/0146167205282153 
  • Strachman, A., & Gable, S. (2006). What You Want (and Do Not Want) Affects What You See (and Do Not See): Avoidance Social Goals and Social Events Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32 (11), 1446-1458 DOI: 10.1177/0146167206291007


  1. This reminds me of that book, "The Secret." Except your reasoning is a lot more easy to understand for me. I completely agree that when we are so focused on the negatives and avoiding them, we never take the time to see the positives. This is a great reminder of why to make the best of our time and our relationships.
    Thank you for sharing.
    I have to add that when it comes to in laws however, sometimes no matter how positive you are things can still go wrong. :)

  2. Thanks for your comment, Stefferie. You are right that sometimes, no matter how much you focus on the positive, things can go wrong (although I was lucky enough to land good in-laws, I have heard my fair share of horror stories ;-)). Having approach goals is not a guarantee of a good outcome – no matter how much you focus on maximizing the positive in an experience, you may just find yourself on a date with a jerk, or at a really uncomfortable dinner with your in-laws. However, if you are approach focused, you may be better able to find the positive in the situation, such as seeing the dinner with your in-laws as a chance to bond with your partner over how awkward you both feel. Also, if you stay away from being avoidance focused, when the experience does end up being negative, you may feel less uncomfortable, and less like you failed at your goals than if you had been focused on avoiding a bad outcome.

    I also love that you likened this research to “The Secret” because I think Juli is writing a post on that very topic in the near future. Although I think “The Secret” may exaggerate some of the benefits of positive thinking, psychological findings, such as the benefits of approach goals, do suggest that to some extent we reap what we sow. Stay tuned to see what Juli has to say about the book!


  3. Great article, Amie -- thanks a ton for summarizing all of the social psych research in such an accessible way. It's a huge help!

    The findings make a ton of intuitive sense. It reminds me a lot of an old saying from Henry Ford -- "Whether you think you can, or you think you cannot - you're right."