Original Report| Volume 15, ISSUE 11, P1120-1129, November 2014

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Competing Goals Attenuate Avoidance Behavior in the Context of Pain

  • Nathalie Claes
    Address reprint requests to Nathalie Claes, MSc, Department of Psychology, University of Leuven, Tiensestraat 102, box 3726, 3000 Leuven, Belgium.
    Research Group Health Psychology, University of Leuven, Leuven, Belgium

    Department of Experimental-Clinical and Health Psychology, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium
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  • Kai Karos
    Research Group Health Psychology, University of Leuven, Leuven, Belgium
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  • Ann Meulders
    Research Group Health Psychology, University of Leuven, Leuven, Belgium

    Center for Excellence on Generalization Research in Health and Psychopathology, University of Leuven, Leuven, Belgium
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  • Geert Crombez
    Department of Experimental-Clinical and Health Psychology, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium
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  • Johan W.S. Vlaeyen
    Research Group Health Psychology, University of Leuven, Leuven, Belgium

    Center for Excellence on Generalization Research in Health and Psychopathology, University of Leuven, Leuven, Belgium

    Department of Clinical Psychological Science, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands
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Published:August 22, 2014DOI:


      • Motivational aspects impact pain-related outcomes in healthy subjects.
      • Introducing a competing, approach-reward does not impact pain-related fear.
      • Presenting a competing, approach-reward goal attenuates avoidance behavior.
      • Avoidance behavior is associated with both pain-avoidance and approach-reward goals.


      Current fear-avoidance models consider pain-related fear as a crucial factor in the development of chronic pain. However, pain-related fear often occurs in a context of multiple, competing goals. This study investigated whether pain-related fear and avoidance behavior are attenuated when individuals are faced with a pain avoidance goal and another valued but competing goal, operationalized as obtaining a monetary reward. Fifty-five healthy participants moved a joystick toward different targets. In the experimental condition, a movement to one target (conditioned stimulus [CS+]) was followed by a painful unconditioned stimulus (pain-US) and a rewarding unconditioned stimulus (reward-US) on 50% of the trials, whereas the other movement (nonreinforced conditioned stimulus [CS−]) movement was not. In the control condition, the CS+ movement was followed by the pain-US only. Results showed that pain-related fear was elevated in response to the CS+ compared to the CS− movement, but that it was not influenced by the reward-US. Interestingly, participants initiated a CS+ movement slower than a CS− movement in the control condition but not in the experimental condition. Also, in choice trials, participants performed the CS+ movement more frequently in the experimental than in the control condition. These results suggest that the presence of a valued competing goal can attenuate avoidance behavior.


      The current study provides experimental evidence that both pain and competing goals impact on behavioral decision making and avoidance behavior. These results provide experimental support for treatments of chronic pain that include an individual's pursuit of valuable daily life goals, rather than limiting focus to pain reduction only.

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