Abram Amsel’s Theory Of Frustration

An explanation about the feeling of discomfort that we experience when not reaching our goals.

From the annals of history, from the creation of civilizations to the present day, the human being has been characterized mainly by aspiring to achieve success, achieving the goals that one sets for himself and consequently pursuing new objectives to increase motivation.

The failure or non-achievement of this motivation is what leads us to frustration, a depressive or negative state that according to Abram Amsel can have its origins in the biological field of human beings. Next we will see what exactly Abram Amsel’s theory of frustration is and what it says about how we behave.

How do we define frustration?

Frustration is defined as a strictly unpleasant feeling in which a person previously deposits all their physical and mental efforts, attitudes, skills and time to achieve a goal that had been set and the nullity of it. This is what is often experienced when a goal has not been successfully achieved.

On the other hand, frustration can be considered a totally subjective perception or sensation, of a personal nature and whose interpretation depends on each individual. In other words, the phenomenon of frustration may or may not occur, depending on how the failure to achieve our goals is perceived.

Abram Amsel and the frustration theory

Abram Amsel (1922-2006) was a distinguished researcher, theorist, teacher, and writer in the field of human behavior and in the various branches of psychological knowledge of human behavior. He is also the author of the book “The theory of frustration”, published in 1992.

In general terms, Abram Amsel devoted himself with passion to the theories of human behavior by investigating reward mechanisms, the psychological effects produced by non-reward  and on the different psychological reactions both in the moment in which it is not assumed the frustration as in moments in which it is not assumed.

The theory of frustration understands and addresses concepts such as secondary frustration, which is a type of response learned from frustration itself; persistence (continuing to pursue the goal even without obtaining a reward) and regression, which involves the appearance of a certain mode of behavior in the early frustration phase.

Motivation is part of frustration

Motivation is an inherent feeling of people that appears due to the fact of achieving a goal, realizing a dream or covering a certain personal need, such as for example it could be to study. Being a doctor is what motivates a medical student to study.

In this sense, individuals build priorities that depend on personal needs, whether material, immaterial or emotional, as suggested by the theory of “Human Motivation” by Abraham Maslow (1943).

For this reason, motivation turns out to be a dependent variable of frustration. In other words, depending on the expectations we create around us, the frustration will be less or greater, and at the same time the degree of motivation can be transformed according to the situation.

The frustrating processes

Taking into account Abram Amsel’s theory of frustration, there are various processes of appearance of frustration that we will see below.

1. Approach-Avoidance

This type of frustration is one that refers to two types of situations, one with a positive charge and the other with a negative charge, which makes us vulnerable to making a decision out of fear of what we may lose.

2. Incompatibility of positive objectives

This situation occurs when we pursue two objectives that seem incompatible with each other. For example, we want to buy a luxury car but at the same time we want it at a cheap price.

3. The wall or barrier

Frustration is conceived by the inability to achieve something because some element in the form of a barrier or obstacle (physical or not) prevents us.


Like all human behavior, frustration has consequences that, in some cases, become serious and that if not treated by a professional specialist can become very harmful.

Some of the consequences of frustration can lead to an aggressive attitude towards others or oneself, leading to  self-harm. Childish behavior and regression are other common causes, although the most common complications are depression, sadness, and introversion.


Abram Amsel’s Frustration Theory provides us with some remedies and solutions to avoid frustration. Among these suggestions, Abram Amsel recommends identifying the origin and its cause, trying to find alternative goals that give us full satisfaction and, above all, setting affordable and realistic goals.

We live in a society in which the world of work, according to Amsel, Hull and Maslow, plays a great role in frustration at the collective level, where the key to success is preconceived by standards of competence and willingness is part of glory. Therefore, rethinking this framework of relationships is also necessary.

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