Psychology and the Soap Bubble

Thinking about approach and avoidance

Published by Peg Streep in Tech Support

It’s been suggested by a body of research that temperament can be characterized as either oriented to approach or avoidance and that, moreover, people with approach temperaments are more attuned to positive affect, experience less frustration and conflict, and are more receptive of and reactive to positive events and feelings.  Those motivated by avoidance, on the other hand, frame their actions and goals in terms of what they wish to avoid.  Needless to say, they aren’t as happy in the day to day as their approach-oriented compatriots.

All human beings are hardwired both to approach and avoid, of course; the survival of the species depended on its ability to identify good things correctly, which would help it thrive and which should be approached and, even more important, bad things and threats that had to be avoided.  It won’t surprise you that, at the beginning, since the latter actually mattered more than providing a motivational system that would help humanity thrive, we’re also hardwired to pay more attention to bad things and to have those negative events leave a more lasting impression than good things.  (It’s called the negativity bias.)

 All of this gets me thinking about the soap bubble; I should admit at the beginning that I am an incorrigible blower of bubbles, an aficionado of every device ever invented to loft a shimmering if evanescent orb into the air.  In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the shimmering bubble was an emblem of the transience of life, and sometimes used to signify vanitas, or the attachment to earthly things.  The soap bubble figures in our language as both a symbol of that which should be approached —the sheer joyousness the bubble represents floating in the air, reflecting an unseen rainbow — and the dangers of hanging your happiness on something so ephemeral that it needs to be avoided.  So the humble soap bubble —that fragile skin which is both beautiful and slippery, lovely to look at but impossible to hold or hang on to — is the perfect vehicle to think about how approach and avoidance figures in our lives, both in the main and day to day.

 Let’s start with the phrase “bubble over.”  Unless you’re talking about stew on your stainless steel stove, this is the bubble at its best —bringing to mind the unbridled giggle of a three-year-old, that sudden burst of joy that floods the heart at memorable moments, that everything is “just right.”   It’s the happiness we all look for.

But then there’s “bubble up” —a phrase that leaves our judgment suspended for a moment in time, wondering whether to approach or avoid.  It denotes something welling up between rocks or a fissure, as in lava or oil; it connotes coming to the surface, something hidden being brought to light.  Depending on your temperament (and what’s bubbling up), this could be a good thing or a bad one.  It could be an epiphany about a conflict or some other thorny situation you wanted to resolve (that’s the approach person talking), or the big bad wolf of a moment you’ve been trying to avoid. Oil or lava: take your pick.

“On the bubble,” on the other hand, leaves us suspended between two outcomes, leaving some of us thinking that it will work out after all (approach people unite!) or that we’re doomed  (“Buying myself a crystal for better energy!”).  Your team — whomever you’re rooting for in the arenas of life, sports or politics — may be on its way to victory or on that slippery slope that bubbles have.  Only time will tell.

Finally, there’s “bursting the bubble”—that inevitable moment when the glittering globe floating in the air becomes one with the sky and disappears.  This could be the moment at which an unrealizable fantasy is finally abandoned, or the painful moment of truth when you realize what you thought to be true isn’t.  When the bubble bursts, the approach-oriented person may learn a valuable lesson, while the avoidant one has his or her fears confirmed.  On a global level, when a bubble bursts—times of prosperity, marital or personal happiness, the stock or housing market — it’s time either to re-gear (approach) or start running (avoidance).

 So, imagine all that psychology reflected in a bubble. 

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