The pursuit of personal goals can be a healthy thing. But a new study suggests that pursuing avoidance goals may have negative effects on psychological well-being. Approach goals are goals that people strive to achieve, such as becoming an athlete or a doctor. Approach goals may also be avenues of positive direction people choose to pursue, such as a more intimate relationship with their loved one. Avoidance goals are goals that people aim to avoid, such as avoiding getting fired or avoiding failing grades in school. According to results of a study conducted by Andrew J. Elliot of the Department of Clinical and Social Sciences in Psychology at the University of Rochester in New York, avoidance goals can decrease the interpersonal well-being of people in Japan and the intrapersonal well-being of Americans. The Japanese culture is a collective one, and people strive to achieve harmony with their communities. This is accomplished through approach and avoidance goal pursuit. In America, the culture is more independent and focuses on personal success and development. Therefore, interpersonal relations are at the core of the Japanese well-being while intrapersonal relations are the basis for American well-being.
Avoidance goal pursuit has been linked to psychological well-being in previous research. However, until this most recent study, few researchers have examined how avoidance goals impact well-being across cultures. To address this gap, Elliot conducted two studies that analyzed the influence of avoidance goals both short-term and long-term in a sample of American and Japanese participants. He found that for the Japanese participants, avoidance goals negatively impacted their interpersonal well-being but had no effect on intrapersonal relations. In contrast, the American participants displayed decreases in intrapersonal well-being as a result of avoidance goal pursuit.
Elliot believes that avoidance goals can be positive as well. For instance, it is appropriate to avoid dangerous situations. But overall, Elliot believes avoidance goals should only be pursued when necessary. Elliot also notes that although approach goals seem to have a positive relationship with psychological well-being, they too can be detrimental. In independent cultures such as America, the pursuit of intrapersonal goals can be achieved through self-serving methods and feed narcissistic traits and tendencies. In sum, the findings of this study shed light on the benefits and consequences of goal pursuit across cultures, but more work is needed. Elliot added, “The findings clarify and extend puzzling findings from prior empirical work in this area and raise provocative possibilities about the nature of avoidance goal pursuit.”
Elliot, A. J., Sedikides, C., Murayama, K., Tanaka, A., Thrash, T. M., Mapes, R. R. (2012). Cross-cultural generality and specificity in self-regulation: Avoidance personal goals and multiple aspects of well-being in the United States and Japan. Emotion. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0027456
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