When taking the stage at TC’s Milbank Chapel, Andrew J. Elliot recalled a simple yet pivotal moment in his college career that inspired his scholarship today.  An avid college baseball player with a competitive spirit, Elliot was determined to never lose a game. Yet in his final year of the sport, he began to wonder why he was losing motivation for a sport he once loved, always focusing on possible unfavorable outcomes. Through self reflection, he found that  avoidance motivation, the act of avoiding a negative outcome, was at play.

“You may have heard the adage ‘Research is me-search,’ and in this case, it’s absolutely true,” explained Elliot, this year’s annual Tisch Lecturer and Visiting Professor —  who has dedicated his career to examining  avoidance motivation as Professor of Psychology at the University of Rochester. 

Here are just a few key takeaways from Elliot’s  recent lecture on avoidance motivation, especially in educational settings:

Trying to Avoid Failure Negatively Impacts Performance

Elliot’s work focuses largely on performance goals and outcomes. He explains that a performance-avoidance goal (the desire to avoid performing more poorly than others do) has been shown to negatively impact performance, while the effects of a performance-approach goal (trying to outperform others) often result in positive outcomes and self-awareness. 

“Fear of failure is embedded in us and it takes long-term work to change,” shares Elliot. “There is long-term work on trying to understand that failure isn't necessarily shameful.”

Through an empirical study with a group of 229 undergraduate students, Elliot assessed goals in the classroom and how they impacted student outcomes. He found that students with performance approach goals had better learning outcomes, higher test scores, and positive self reflection in the classroom. Meanwhile, students with performance avoidance goals often displayed self-doubt and poor exam performance. 

Practice Self-Awareness and Positivity at an Early Age

More broadly, Elliot asks the question of whether individuals understand how their goals influence academic performance, a concept known as metamotivation. These are facets of his “2x2 Achievement Goal Model,” a framework created to examine both positive and negative approaches to success. “It’s a model that's driven a lot of the work that I've done,” he shares. 

Yet the importance of establishing goals early on puts parents, educators, and leaders in the driver’s seat. This means promoting valuable coping strategies and positive reinforcement at an early age is critical. “Small classroom efforts like changing language emphasis from “avoid mistakes” to “mistakes are the way to learn” make a huge difference,” explains Elliot.

“We should strive to teach people under our charge which are the best and worst performance  goals and why. That's what I'm doing today with you,” concludes Elliot. “I'm giving you information that's valuable to your achievements.”

Listen to Elliot’s full lecture above.