Aversive and Achievement Goals

[Related to The Cockroach of Motivation. If you’re here and generally consider yourself part of the rationality community, check out the quick note first.]

In psychology, especially the subsector focused on motivation and identity, there’s this idea of future possible selves: the ways you imagine yourself being as you go forward. You can have lots of them at once: being good at math, popular with friends, owning a pet, being responsible, not procrastinating, being known as friendly, avoiding debt, etc. Some of them are considered ‘positive’ and some ‘negative’. This has little to do with the actual goal you want, as how you frame it. Are you aiming to ‘be X’ or ‘not be Y’? The first is positive, the second negative. In other words, one is about achieving something (grades, a relationship, being known as a certain personality trait), the other about being averse to something (procrastinating, failing a class, debt).

In general, people who have more specific and elaborate positive possible/future selves (rather than an equal mix of negative possible selves and positive possible selves, or lots of elaborate future selves they want to avoid) seem to be more motivated and persistent. (here, here, and here)

If you pull this apart, it fits. One of the roles of future selves is something to become more like or less like. If you check in with yourself about whether or not you’re achieving this, you’ll probably get markedly different results from positive future selves and negative future selves. It’s easier to mentally rehearse Doing Something than it is to mentally rehearse Not Doing Something.

And I’ve been using this framework to poke about it my goal setting and motivations. I’ve started tagging things as aversive (negative/go away from/be less like) or achieving (positive/aim for/be more like), and then flipping them around the axis.

Here’s an aversive one, as I decided when to have a stressful phone call:

I don’t want to be the sort of person who avoids things because they’re emotionally weighty.

Okay, I feel fairly good about wanting this. I don’t want to be someone who avoids these interactions! I’m  impressed by people who dive right in to figuring out emotions that make me want to mentally recoil. I find myself frustrated when people aren’t willing to introspect.

But I also flip it around to achievement:

I want to be the sort of person who tackles emotionally weighty conflicts.

Actually, I feel even better about this framing. Not only that, but I’m likely to be able to notice when I get closer to this goal. Hello, availability heuristic, let me use you to my advantage!

Take the aversive framing: when I ping my brain and ask “Have I been the sort of person who avoids things because they’re emotionally weighty?” I’m asking it to come up with times when I’ve avoided things that were emotionally weighty. If the question is Am I This Person, and This Person is defined by “not avoiding”, I’m going to pull up times when I avoided–it’s faster to locate instances of something happening than discrete instances of something not-happening. As Robby put it, it’s easier to remember elephants than not-elephants. So suddenly I’m recalling all the times I screwed up. Wheeee!

But look at what happens with the positive framing: I ask myself Have I been the sort of person who tackles emotionally weighty conflicts? And now the elephant that my beleaguered brain is looking for is instances of dealing with emotionally-heavy conflicts. Suddenly, I have a list of times I did the right thing!

And even if I don’t have a list right now–maybe I still haven’t achieved this future self–I know that I’ll be closer when I have a longer list. Whereas with the aversive framing, it’s probably always going to be possible to come up with an example or two when I avoided a stressful conversation. If I think about the goal like that…well, I’ll likely end up frustrated with myself even when things have improved. “I could do better!” is a useful mindset, but when it plays out into “I suck just slightly less than I used to” repeatedly, it’s hard to motivate myself.

Yeah, but what if you already frame goals in the achievement direction?

I want to prioritize cooking meals for myself. 

Nice and achievement-oriented. So I flipped it around:

I want to not fail to prioritize cooking for myself.

…which, uh, sounded a little bit awkward and ungainly. What the hell did that even mean? How would I know if I was ‘not failing to prioritize’? And this train of thought lead my brain into figuring out exactly what prioritizing meant–if only so I could rescue that sentence from its awkward grammatical puberty. One obvious way was to define my terms in the aversive condition:

I want to avoid eating out more than twice a week.

Evanesco double negatives, Accio simple sentences!

Which also gave me a better achievement orientation:

I want to cook meals all but two times a week.

And beyond rescuing a horrible sentence, I’d now spent more than a few mental cycles on this goal. I’d turned it over in my head, defined the more nebulous bits, and pictured and discarded other versions of the plan.

Hello LW/Rationalists/People Who Were Curious and Clicked the Anchor: make sure to keep an eye to the abstract and methods section within research links. For some reason, the LW colloquial usage of ‘future/possible self’ doesn’t quite jive with how they’re operationalizing it, and this will save you time and confusion. If that doesn’t clear things up, here’s me giving a more informal explanation. [Return to top.]

Using Self-Help Anxiety (SAM) App: Initial Thoughts

I downloaded the Self-Help Anxiety Management (henceforth, SAM) app to my phone several weeks back with the intention of giving it a trial run. Today I got quite anxious and after knitting part of a scarf, walking three miles, trying to meditate, and taking a nap, all with zero success in stress-reduction, I remembered it. This is Day 1 of the test–I’ll write more well-rounded analysis in 7-10 days, when I’ve used it over time.  If you’re interested in testing alongside, this is the iOS link and here’s one for Android. 

Before: Yes, hi, this is anxious.

Before: Welp, even more anxious than I realized.

Thought 1: Wow, Kate, you are anxious a lot.

Thought 2: Wait, this seems to actually be helping quite a bit.

Cursory Look at the Best SAM Stuff:

-An anxiety tracker (data entry part pictured on left). I paired this with Annoyster (Apple/Android alternative), to pester me to chart anxiety at random intervals throughout the day. Goal: Getting a better picture than either charting when I’m calm enough to remember or charting when I’m anxious enough to open the app.

-The relaxation techniques appear to be gamified: though I haven’t levelled up yet, it appears that after using a relaxation techinque over time, you can “level up” to unlock tougher tools (Perhaps meditating or doing breathing exercises for longer periods of time? Will check back in next writeup.)

-Anxiety Toolbox: when you find activities in the app that are particularly helpful, you move them in here. I’m excited about this part for two reasons
-It indicates that the designers recognize that coping techniques vary widely. What works for me may leave you bored and still anxious.
-When the toolbox fills up, I won’t have to sift through all the activities on the main page to find what I want. Also, if I can make going from anxious to trying coping mechanisms quickly, it increases the likelihood that I’ll do that instead of getting wrapped up in a loop of self-defeating thoughts.

After: Anxious, but manageably so.

After: Anxious, but manageably so. Time invested to get to this point: 10 minutes.

-A little thing that just made me happy: in one of the calming techniques, guided breathing, you can adjust the inhale/exhale times. Attention to detail like this matters. I breathe quite shallowly, and likely wouldn’t have found the exercise practical without customization. Of course, if the app didn’t allow for this, I could have just done focused breathing exercises on my own….and been much less likely to make it a habit.

The Downsides:

-It’s not very intuitive. I had to read the directions and fiddle around with buttons for each screen. I strongly recommend playing with the app during a non-anxious time before putting it to use.

-There’s some sort of social network aspect where you can set up an account. I have no idea what the value of this is.

-All of the references, numbers to call, and resources are for the UK. (The app was developed by a university in Wales.

-I’m not sure how all the pieces of the menu fit together. Sure, it’s great that there’s a place for me to list things that make me anxious, and I like having coping techniques, but how can I use them most effectively? Not a lot of advice is offered. If this was the first app I’d tried or the first attempt I’d made to manage anxiety, I think I might be less enthused.

First thoughts: I like this! It’s the first app I’ve recommended to friends, and the first that I’ve seen immediate results from. It’s free, it’s made by people in the field, and worst case, I’ll have more data about my mood over time that I can use.

Links for downloading it yourself: Android, iOS

Disclaimer: I’m not a therapist. Definitely consult yours, and SAM and my advice aren’t alternatives to medical care. 


[Mental Health Hack] Cooler Heads Prevail

Note 1: I’m baaaaack! (I hear this carries more weight when you don’t have to say it every time you write a post.)

Note 2:  An obvious but important disclaimer: I am not a doctor, therapist, or the delightful mishmash of the two, a psychiatrist. I am but a lowly psych-student-sometimes-social-services-intern blogger. Calibrate appropriately, consult doctors when necessary, and full steam cautiously ahead. 

Welcome to Mental Health Hacks, a when-the-hell-ever-ly feature on making your life easier, brainwise. Each post will be short, science-based ideas for life hacks for the neuro-typical and atypical. Your mileage may vary! Your topic suggestions are encouraged!


I mean, you can totally panic if you want to. But here’s something that might help you panic more effectively.

Around the time I started having troubles with [sub-clinical] levels of anxiety, I noticed something weird. When I got anxious (and very occasionally, before I realized I was high-anxiety), I would feel too warm. WAY too warm. Not sweaty, not that the room was too warm, just a slow burning under my skin. The nearest comparison I could give is the shame-heat of feeling humiliation or embarrassment.

In retrospect (or maybe just in confirmation bias), I can recall being scared or stressed as a child and feeling that slow flare. When I felt too warm, it was hard to concentrate on the task at hand, resulting in a frustrating loop of “Too warm, can’t think! But if I can’t think, I can’t finish this project!”…resulting in STRESS SPIRALS. Not fun.

As it turns out, this is quite common. The theory (annoyingly, all behind paywalls) is that stress-motivated vasoconstriction–when blood vessels contract–is to blame. Despite sounding a wee terrifying, the vascular contraction isn’t terribly dangerous in small amounts. Similar results can be achieved by caffeine. Scientists argue, each with pet data, whether the reaction is found in people with panic disorder and not in those with generalized anxiety disorder or the reverse.

But! Everybody seems to agree that in some subset of people, being anxious means feeling uncomfortably warm, and that sometimes the sensation of heat precedes the emotional aspect.  (With fascinating anecdata about severe anxiety leading to a phobia of blushing.)

Okay, so then what?

Reducing the immediate internal inferno can give you the space needed to deal with people and situations. It’s nigh on impossible to respond peacefully and reasonably when EVERYTHING IS HOT AND AWFUL. So–we make it less hot and awful. Additionally, brains are not so great at determining cause and effect with emotions. There’s a high probability that just feeling less heated can reduce your net anxiety.

[PAUSE: Stick a pencil or pen between your teeth. I promise this is relevant.]

Things I’ve found to work:

-A cool or cold washcloth/paper towel/anything on the back of the neck. This also eases dizziness, which usually comes knocking when I’m anxious.

-A fan or cool breeze pointed at my face (good) or back (better).

-Fanning myself with whatever’s closest at hand. This one sounds particularly obvious, but has the added advantage of giving you a way to avoid eye contact.

I’ve also heard that standing with a freezer or fridge door open (or walking into one, if you’re in food service) can help. My experience is that airflow trumps the air’s temperature, but whatever tips your cow.*

*This is why I love the Midwest.