Threat and defense: From anxiety to approach

E. Jonas, J.E. Mcgregor, J. Klackl, D. Agroskin, I. Fritsche, C. Holbrook, K. Nash, T. Proulx, M. Quirin

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterScientific

357 Citations (Scopus)


The social psychological literature on threat and defense is fragmented. Groups of researchers have focused on distinct threats, such as mortality, uncertainty, uncontrollability, or meaninglessness, and have developed separate theoretical frameworks for explaining the observed reactions. In the current chapter, we attempt to integrate old and new research, proposing both a taxonomy of variation and a common motivational process underlying people’s reactions to threats. Following various kinds of threats, people often turn to abstract conceptions of reality—they invest more extremely in belief systems and worldviews, social identities, goals, and ideals. We suggest that there are common motivational processes that underlie the similar reactions to all of these diverse kinds of threats. We propose that (1) all of the threats present people with discrepancies that immediately activate basic neural processes related to anxiety. (2) Some categories of defenses are more proximal and symptom-focused, and result directly from anxious arousal and heightened attentional vigilance associated with anxious states. (3) Other kinds of defenses operate more distally and mute anxiety by activating approach-oriented states. (4) Depending on the salient dispositional and situational affordances, these distal, approach-oriented reactions vary in the extent to which they (a) resolve the original discrepancy or are merely palliative; (b) are concrete or abstract; (c) are personal or social. We present results from social neuroscience and standard social psychological experiments that converge on a general process model of threat and defense.

Threat and defense: From anxiety to approach (PDF Download Available). Available from: [accessed Jan 16 2018].
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAdvances in experimental social psychology
EditorsJ.M. Olson, M.P. Zanna
PublisherAcademic Press
Publication statusPublished - 2014


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