Approachavoidance Conflict

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Approach-avoidance conflict occurs when approach and avoidance tendencies of similar strength are opposed to each other. More generally, "conflict occurs when two or more incompatible reaction tendencies are instigated simultaneously" (Kimble, 1961). Conflict can involve approach-approach, avoidance-avoidance, approach-avoidance or multiple combinations of these. "Approach-avoidance conflict is by far the most important and the most common form of conflict in animal behavior" (McFarland, 1987). Both approach and avoidance can be produced by stimuli that generally do so in a particular species without previous experience. The kind of behavior produced by these "innate" stimuli helps us understand function. Other stimuli produce approach and avoidance only after learning. Their effects can help us understand control mechanisms. Approach-avoidance conflict is currently important for identifying antianxiety drugs (File, 1992) and for analyzing the brain areas involved in human anxiety disorders.

By looking at natural conflict in the wild (ethology), observers have discovered some complex patterns of behavior. Suppose food is close to danger. Animals will approach while they are far from the food (and danger) but will move away again when too close to the danger (and food). They will usually finish up in an ambivalent posture at some intermediate distance (see, e.g., McFarland, 1987). The problem is how to get your lunch without becoming lunch for someone else. The high survival value of solving this problem has led to ritualization of behavior in many conflicts. "Conflict behaviour is [also] often replaced by other seemingly irrelevant, behaviour . . . termed displacement activity" (McFarland, 1987). So conflict can produce a mixture of approach and avoidance behavior. In a simple robot this mixture would result in unending oscillation at an inter mediate distance, but it often produces a variety of complicated and sometimes apparently bizarre behaviors. These behaviors can resolve the conflict by providing new information or by allowing the animal to ignore an insoluble problem and get on with other business.

Analysis of approach-avoidance conflict in the laboratory provides some explanation of the ethological observations. In 1944, Miller (Miller, 1944; Kimble, 1961; Gray, 1987) proposed a model, the details of which have since been essentially confirmed. Both the tendency to approach a desired object and the tendency to avoid a feared object increase as the object gets closer to the animal. This has been measured in terms of the strength with which the animal will pull toward or away from the object (Gray, 1987). The avoidance gradient is steeper than the approach gradient. Thus, at large distances the animal approaches, whereas at short distances it avoids, and at equilibrium conflict behavior is observed (see Gray, 1987, for cases in which the avoidance gradient may be reduced).

Recently, ethoexperimental analysis (Blanchard & Blanchard, 1989) has extended this picture to include temporal as well as spatial distance. (Ethoexperimental analysis involves the use of ethological measures and experimental manipulations within an ecologically consistent laboratory setting.) When a cat is present, rats avoid an arena containing food. When there is no sign of a cat, rats enter the arena and eat the food. When a cat has recently been present or when the smell of a cat is present, the rats engage in an approach-avoidance oscillation accompanied by risk analysis behavior. Here, extensive assessment of the environment and the use of a stretch-attend posture may be seen not as ritualization or displacement activity but as behavior that will actively resolve the conflict (in favor of approach or avoidance) by gathering new information.

Blanchard and Blanchard (1989) ascribe pure avoidance to fear and distinguish this from risk analysis in the presence of threat, which they ascribe to anxiety. The implied relation between these behaviors and equivalent human clinical dysfunction is supported by the fact that the former are sensitive to antipanic agents and the latter to anti-anxiety agents (Blanchard, Griebel, Henrie, & Blanchard, 1997). Much conventional experimental analysis suggests that avoidance within an approach-avoidance conflict (resulting from either fear or frustration) is sensitive to anti-anxiety drug action, whereas pure avoidance (resulting from fear or frustration) is not (Gray, 1977). As with the ethological analysis, this suggests that approach-avoidance conflict involves more than a simple balance between approach and avoidance. It involves special mechanisms to produce ritualized behavior and displacement activity. The drug data show that conflict increases avoidance tendencies. In the wild, this would produce a more "safety-first" attitude than if approach and avoidance were simply allowed to sum arithmetically.

A shift toward risk taking in approach-avoidance conflict with little change in pure approach or pure avoidance is characteristic not only of antianxiety drug action but also of septal and hippocampal lesions. Thus, antianxiety drugs appear to change approach-avoidance conflict by impairing hippocampal function (Gray, 1982). The septo-hippocampal system appears to receive information about approach and avoidance tendencies, to detect conflicts, and (particularly with approach-avoidance conflict) to increase avoidance tendencies (Gray & McNaughton, 2000). Given the previous distinction made by Blanchard and Blanchard (1989) between fear and anxiety, this theory holds that Generalized Anxiety Disorder (but not simple phobia or panic) involves hyper-activity of the septo-hippocampal system (McNaughton, 1997). This hyperactivity can be viewed as increasing the level of fear (or of anticipation of loss of reward). It thus moves the point of intersection of the approach and avoidance gradients further from sources of threat.

Approach-avoidance conflict, then, has been under detailed investigation for many decades; a clear picture is now emerging of its structure, function, and psychological properties. Dysfunction of the mechanisms controlling approach-avoidance conflict appears fundamental to Anxiety Disorders. Detailed neural mechanisms, and sites of action of therapeutic drugs on those neural mechanisms, are now being discovered as substrates of the psychological processes involved (Crestani et al., 1999). Of particular cause for optimism, ethology, behavior analysis, cognitive psychology, psychopharmacology, and behavioral neuroscience appear to be combining to produce a single, coherent, integrated, story in this area.


Blanchard, R. J., & Blanchard, D. C. (1989). Antipredator defensive behaviors in a visible burrow system. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 103(1), 70-82. Blanchard, R. J., Griebel, G., Henrie, J. A., & Blanchard, D.C. (1997). Differentiation of anxiolytic and panicolytic drugs by effects on rat and mouse defense test batteries. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 21(6), 783-789. Crestani, F., Lorez, M., Baer, K., Essrich, C., Benke, D., Laurent, J. P., et al. (1999). Decreased GABAA-receptor clustering results in enhanced anxiety and a bias for threat cues. Nature Neuroscience, 2(9), 833-839. File, S. E. (1992). Behavioural detection of anxiolytic action. In J. M. Elliott, D. J. Heal, & C. A. Marsden (Eds.), Experimental approaches to anxiety and depression (pp. 25-44). London: Wiley.

Gray, J. A. (1977). Drug effects on fear and frustration: Possible limbic site of action of minor tranquilizers. In L. L. Iversen, S. D. Iversen, & S. H. Snyder (Eds.), Handbook of psychophar-macology: Vol. 8. Drugs, neurotransmitters and behavior (pp. 433-529). New York: Plenum Press.

Gray, J. A. (1982). The neuropsychology of anxiety: An enquiry into the functions of the septo-hippocampal system (1st ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Gray, J. A. (1987). The psychology of fear and stress. London: Cambridge University Press.

Gray, J. A., & McNaughton, N. (2000). The neuropsychology of anxiety: An enquiry into the functions of the septo-hippocampal system (2nd ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Kimble, G. A. (1961). Hilgard and Marquis'conditioning and learning (2nd ed.). New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

McFarland, D. (1987). The Oxford companion to animal behaviour. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

McNaughton, N. (1997). Cognitive dysfunction resulting from hip-pocampal hyperactivity: A possible cause of anxiety disorder. Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior, 56, 603-611.

Miller, N. E. (1944). Experimental studies of conflict. In J. M. Hunt (Ed.), Personality and the behavioural disorders. New York: Ronald.

Neil McNaughton

University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand

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