What you want to avoid is what you see: Social avoidance motivation affects the interpretation of emotional faces


This study investigated the effects of habitual social approach and avoidance motivation on the classification of facial expressions of different visual clarity. Participants (N = 78) categorized partially masked emotional faces expressing either anger or happiness as positive or negative. Participants generally tended to interpret the facial expressions in a positive way. This positivity effect was reduced when persons were highly avoidance motivated. Social avoidance motivation predicted fewer positive and more negative interpretations in the least visible condition that provided extremely little information on the facial expression. Thus, people high in social avoidance motivation are likely to have anticipated angry faces as the facial stimuli offered only minimal information. The results for social approach motivation did not reach statistical significance. To conclude, it seems that persons who are most afraid of having negative social interactions (i.e., those high in social avoidance motivation), anticipate and interpret social information in the most negative way, which could lead to the reinforcement of the avoidance motivation.

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  1. 1.

    In a pilot study, we tested how many of the “grain” commands are needed to significantly reduced the visibility. Based on the results of the pilot study, we used 10 “grain” commands for the creation of very high visibility, additional 15 “grain” commands for the creation of high visibility, and for each other condition (medium visibility, low visibility, and very low visibility) additional six “grain” commands in the current study.

  2. 2.

    As the procedure was new, we included a relatively high number of different visibility conditions and a relatively high number of different facial stimuli. This procedure aimed at enhancing the reliability of the measurement.

  3. 3.

    The reaction times did not systematically differ between the conditions and as a function of social motivation.

  4. 4.

    We found no significant effects of gender of the participants or gender or age of the models on the results.

  5. 5.

    We also explored if the correlations differed in the other visibility conditions. This was the case for false classifications of angry faces in the medium visibility condition (approach motivation: r = .23, p = .048; avoidance motivation: r = −.13, p = .256; z = 2.22, p = .026) and for false classifications of angry faces in the very high visibility condition (approach motivation: r = .13, p = .246; avoidance motivation: r = −.24, p = .037; z = 2.30, p = .021). None of the other correlations were significantly different from each other (all ps > .071).


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This research was supported by a Grant of the funding by Suzanne and Hans Biäsch Foundation for Applied Psychology, Switzerland (principle investigator: Jana Nikitin). We thank the Life-Management team for helpful discussions of the work reported in this paper.

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Nikitin, J., Freund, A.M. What you want to avoid is what you see: Social avoidance motivation affects the interpretation of emotional faces. Motiv Emot 39, 384–391 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-014-9459-5

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  • Social motivation
  • Approach
  • Avoidance
  • Emotional faces
  • Social-information processing