I’ve always wondered why some people are content with minimal goals they must attain, while others go beyond what is “necessary”… And here’s a theory that has helped me understand the differences: Self-Regulatory Focus, by Dr. Tory Higgins (yes, the same researcher who proposed ideal and ought self-guides).
What guides your actions? Are you motivated by approaching gains? Or are you motivated by ensuring there are no losses? What gets you going – the prospect of advancement and accomplishment; or security, responsibility, and obligations? If your actions are mostly fueled by positive outcomes or gains, then you have a promotion focus; if your actions are mostly fueled by avoiding losses you have a prevention focus. Even though these two self-regulatory orientations could be influenced by the context, most people have a chronic tendency towards one or the other.
If you remember the self-guides I wrote about in my previous post, you’ll realize a parallel between the ideal-self and a promotion focus; and the ought-self and a prevention focus. For people with a promotion focus goals are viewed as ideals, whereas for those with a prevention focus goals are viewed as oughts.
In other words, actions of Frank – one of the main characters in the movie “Revolutionary Road” – who has a prominent ought self, reflect a prevention focus. Remember his justification for taking the well-paying job: “Well, I support you, don’t I? I work for 10 hours at a job I can’t stand….I have the backbone not to run away from my responsibilities”.
April – Frank’s wife – on the other hand, with a prominent ideal-self is motivated by her dreams and aspirations: “I wanted IN. For years I thought we’ve shared this secret that we would be wonderful in the world. I don’t know exactly how, but just the possibility kept me hoping.”
The person with a promotion focus is on the look out for means of advancement and careful about not closing off the possibilities. That’s also one way in which she differs from a person with a prevention focus – she uses an eager strategy to pursue her goals. The person with a prevention focus prefers a vigilant strategy – Be careful and avoid mistakes! His focus is on minimal goals that he must attain. And how do these two people feel when they fail to reach their goals?
Yes – you’ve probably guessed it right! It follows the same pattern with self-discrepancies I talked about last time. A promotion focus person, when she fails to reach her goal, feels depression-related emotions – disappointment, sadness, and dejection. A prevention focus person, on the other hand, feels anxiety-related emotions – fear, worry, and tension. In other words, different kind of emotions one feels provide qualitatively different insights into goal blockage.
Curious about what type of regulatory focus YOU have? Here are a few ways to find out:
- Use your emotions as indicators: Reflect on what type of emotions you feel when you fail to reach your goals – depression-related or anxiety-related?
- Reflect on the nature of your goals: Are your goals about approaching success? Or are they about avoiding failure/mistakes?
- Which one is more dominant for you: Ideal- or Ought-self? (Reflecting on the questions at the end of my last post would help you with this one)
- Complete the Regulatory Focus Questionnaire on the HigginsLab website – it will also give you some insights about the roots of regulatory focus you have.
And come back next time to read about how the fit between your regulatory focus and the strategy in pursuing your goals can improve your motivation and how you feel about the outcome.