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Motivation is a powerful driving force behind goal pursuit in our daily lives. Two opposing motivational states that underlie much of our behavior are approach, the impulse to move towards, and avoidance, the impulse to move away.

The type of motivation we feel can have a dramatic impact on what we pay attention to, which in turn affects our decisions and actions. For instance, when we experience strong approach or avoidance motivation, we tend to pay attention to small details at the expense of the big picture.

In this research, we expanded on the relationship between motivation and attention in two ways. First, we studied not only how motivation changes what we pay attention to, but also how it affects our ability to flexibly switch the target of our attention. For instance, while driving a car, motivation might affect how well we can shift our attention between the car ahead of us and the broader pattern of traffic. Second, we studied the role of the environmental context. In the previous example, perhaps the density of the traffic or the average speed of the cars on the road alters our ability to shift attention. Our general hunch going in was that different kinds of motivation would be beneficial in different contexts.

To study these questions, we had participants repeatedly shift their attention between global (big picture) and local (small detail) features of an image under varying contexts and motivational states. We changed context by altering the ratio of global to local targets, so that on some groups of trials there were more global or local targets, and on others there was an equal number of global and local targets. Motivation was varied by showing participants pictures of delicious versus disgusting things and by having them act out arm positions that are associated with approaching (e.g., pulling) versus avoiding (e.g., pushing). Faster switching between global and local features indicated how well our participants were able to shift their attention.

When there was an equal number of global and local targets, avoidance motivation led to faster attention switching. On the other hand, when there were more global targets than local targets, approach motivation led to faster switching.

Our study shows that avoidance motivation may improve shifts in attention when those shifts are frequent or predictable, whereas approach may help responding to rare or unexpected events. Future work will help confirm whether this finding will generalize to other situations. In particular, it will be important to see whether using different tasks that measure attention and different ways to manipulate motivation will lead to the same relationship between motivation, context, and the ability to shift attention. For example, here we used images and arm positions to activate approach and avoidance motivation in our participants; however a more explicit manipulation would be to have participants avoid a real loss or approach a real gain (such as losing vs. winning money) while completing the task.

In spite of the need for more research, this project is important because it demonstrates that, when studying the relationship between motivation and attention, it is also necessary to consider the context. This finding may also have implications for everyday life, because goals can usually be framed in either approach and avoidance terms. For example, driving to work can be motivated either by a desire to avoid being late or to get to an exciting meeting. Motivational framing, therefore, may achieve more flexible or more focused attention depending on the environmental context.

Citation: Calcott, R.D., & Berkman, E.T. (2014). Attentional flexibility during approach and avoidance states: The role of context in shifts of attentional breadth. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, 1393-1408.

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