There are few dilemmas as uncomfortable as what psychologists call a double approach-avoidance conflict, a situation in which there are two desirable goals, but achieving either one comes with a painful cost. Democrats running for U.S. House and Senate seats in 2014 are in the grip of one right now, and it is a lulu.
First described by social psychologist Kurt Lewin, the dilemma for a person caught in this type of conflict is that approaching one desirable goal increases the pain that comes with that goal. But moving toward the other desirable goal only produces a different kind of pain. It’s like being stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place, but twice as bad.
Life is full of such conflicts, such as having to choose between accepting a great job offer in an undesirable location or keeping a stinker of a job in a great town to live in. If one of the factors clearly outweighs the others – if the job offer includes a salary that it would be insane to refuse – then the net gain outweighs the net pain, and it is easier to accept the pain as an unfortunate part of the deal, make the decision, and move on.
But when the pain and the gain are closely balanced, vacillation and indecision result. If the image of a squirrel trying to cross a busy road comes to mind, then you have the basic idea of the stress levels that can be involved.
Now consider the dilemma facing the Democrats who rammed Obamacare through even in the face of massive public opposition. They are flanked on one side by millions of really ticked off voters. But on the other side stands the colossal ego and potential vengeance of Barack Obama.
How quickly political fortunes can change. Before the actual launch of Obamacare, the Democrats were riding tall in the political saddle, chewing nails and passing rhetorical barbed wire to fence in the GOP for 2014. The Democrats did not want to negotiate over Obamacare in the recent budget battle, and they didn’t have to. The pain of the government slowdown was felt by others, not by them; and, besides, they could always blame the Republicans and count on their allies in the media to back them up.