For centuries, the hedonic principle that people approach pleasure and avoid pain has been the dominant motivational principle for many disciplines and across all areas of psychology. Even when Sigmund Freud discussed the need to go beyond the pleasure principle because people were controlled by the reality principle—environmental demands—he was simply modifying the pleasure principle such that avoiding pain became almost equal in importance to approaching pleasure. But is that the end of the story of motivation? How does the hedonic principle itself work? Might not there be different ways to approach pleasure and avoid pain that tell us something about motivation beyond the hedonic principle per se? Regulatory focus theory was developed in response to these questions.
Evolutionary Perspective of Regulatory Focus Theory
Regulatory focus theory starts with an evolutionary perspective on motivation. What are the survival motives? To survive, people (and other animals) need both nurturance and security, support or nourishment from the environment (often provided by others), and protection from dangers in the environment (social and nonsocial dangers). Regulatory focus theory proposes that two distinct regulatory systems have developed to deal with each of these distinct survival concerns. When people succeed in satisfying a concern they experience pleasure, and when they fail they experience pain. Thus, both of these regulatory systems involve approaching pleasure and avoiding pain. But this does not mean that the motivational principles underlying these systems are the same. Regulatory focus theory emphasizes the motivational significance of the differences in how actors approach pleasure and avoid pain when they regulate within these distinct systems.
Regulatory focus theory associates the nurturance motive with the development of promotion focus concerns with accomplishment, with fulfilling hopes and aspirations (ideals). It associates the security motive with the development of prevention focus concerns with safety, with meeting duties and obligations (oughts). Once again, people can succeed or fail to fulfill their promotion or prevention focus concerns. But the emotional and motivational consequences of success or failure in these two regulatory focus systems are not the same. When people are in the promotion focus system (either from a chronic predisposition to be in that system or from a current situation activating that system), they experience cheerfulness-related emotions following success (e.g., happy, joyful) and dejection-related emotions following failure (e.g., sad, discouraged). The pleasure of success and the pain of failure are not the same in the prevention focus system. People experience quiescence-related emotions following success (e.g., calm, relaxed) and agitation-related emotions following failure (e.g., nervous, tense). Individuals in a promotion focus also appraise objects and events in general along a cheerfulness-dejection dimension more readily than along a quiescence-agitation dimension, whereas the opposite is true for individuals in a prevention focus.
Strategic Preferences in Regulatory Focus Theory
Success and failure in promotion versus prevention is also not the same motivationally. To understand why this is, a critical difference between promotion and prevention proposed by regulatory focus theory needs to be introduced. Regulatory focus theory proposes that when people pursue goals, their strategic preferences are different in a promotion versus a prevention focus. The theory proposes that individuals in a promotion focus prefer to use eager strategies to pursue goals—strategies of advancement (a gain), which move the actor from neutral (the status quo) to a positive state. In contrast, individuals in a prevention focus prefer to use vigilant strategies to pursue goals (a non-loss)—strategies of carefulness, which stop the actor from moving from neutral to a negative state. Why this difference in strategic preferences? Research has found that individuals in a promotion focus experience a world of gains and nongains because their concerns are about accomplishments and aspirations. Strategic eagerness is also about ensuring gains and not wanting to miss gains, so eagerness should fit a promotion focus. Individuals in a prevention focus, however, experience a world of nonlosses and losses because their concerns are about safety and meeting obligations. Strategic vigilance is also about trying to be careful and not wanting to commit mistakes that produce a loss, so vigilance should fit a prevention focus. Indeed, many studies have found that individuals in a promotion focus prefer to use eager strategies to pursue goals whereas individuals in a prevention focus prefer to use vigilant strategies.
This difference in strategic preferences when people are in a promotion versus a prevention focus is why success and failure in promotion versus prevention is not the same motivationally (or emotionally). When individuals succeed in a promotion focus, it increases their eagerness (experienced as high-intensity joy). In contrast, when individuals succeed in a prevention focus, it reduces their vigilance (experienced as low-intensity calmness). When individuals fail in a promotion focus, it reduces their eagerness (experienced as low-intensity sadness). In contrast, when individuals fail in a prevention focus, it increases their vigilance (experienced as high-intensity nervousness). Evidence indicates that this regulatory focus difference in the motivational impact of success and failure influences postperformance expectations as well. Consistent with people attempting to maintain the strategic state that sustains their focus, individuals in a promotion state raise their expectations for the next trial after success on the initial trial of a task much more than do those in a prevention state (because optimism increases eagerness but reduces vigilance), whereas individuals in a prevention state lower their expectations for the next trial after failure on the initial trial much more than do those in a promotion state (because pessimism increases vigilance but reduces eagerness).
Regulatory focus differences in strategic preferences have other effects as well. Often the differences are revealed when there is a conflict between different choices or different ways to proceed on a task. One conflict is between being risky or conservative when making a judgment. When people are uncertain, they can take a chance and accept something as true, thereby risking an error of commission. Alternatively, they can be cautious and reject something as true. Studies on memory and judgment have found that individuals in a promotion focus take more risks than do those in a prevention focus. Consistent with individuals in a promotion focus being more willing to consider new alternatives under conditions of uncertainty rather than simply sticking with the known (albeit satisfactory) current state of affairs, evidence shows that they are more creative than are those in a prevention focus and are more willing to change and try something new when given the opportunity. The trade-off, however, is that prevention focus individuals are more committed to their choices and thus stick to them even when obstacles arise.
Other Conflicts and Implications of Regulatory Focus Theory
Another conflict on many tasks is between speed (or quantity) and accuracy (or quality). Individuals in a promotion focus emphasize speed more than accuracy whereas individuals in a prevention focus emphasize accuracy more than speed. A third conflict concerns whether to represent objects or events in a more global and abstract manner or in a more local and concrete manner. Evidence indicates that individuals in a promotion focus are more likely to represent objects and events in a global and abstract manner (as well as more temporally distant) than in a local and concrete manner, whereas the opposite is true for those in a prevention focus.
There are additional implications of the difference between a promotion focus on gains versus a prevention focus on nonlosses. Studies have found, for example, that promotion focus individuals perform better when success on a task is represented as adding points toward a desired score or as attaining some desired prize rather than when it is represented as not subtracting points or as maintaining some desired prize. Other studies have found that the nature of ingroup versus outgroup bias varies by regulatory focus. For individuals in a promotion focus, ingroup members are treated with a positive bias (“promoting us”), but there is little bias regarding outgroup members. For individuals in a prevention focus, however, outgroup members are treated with a negative bias (“preventing them”), but there is little bias regarding ingroup members.
Motivational theories in psychology have mostly emphasized people’s needs and desires for particular outcomes, from physiological needs to belongingness needs to achievement needs to autonomy needs. Most generally, the emphasis has been on the hedonic needs for pleasure and against pain. Regulatory focus theory differs from this traditional emphasis in highlighting people’s desires to use certain strategies in goal pursuit—an emphasis on the how of goal pursuit rather than on the consequences of goal pursuit. Studies that have tested regulatory focus theory have shown that promotion and prevention strategic preferences are a major determinant of the motivational and emotional lives of people.
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- Forster, J., Higgins, E. T., & Idson, L. C. (1998). Approach and avoidance strength during goal attainment: Regulatory focus and the “goal looms larger” effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 1115-1131.
- Higgins, E. T. (1997). Beyond pleasure and pain. American Psychologist, 52, 1280-1300.
- Higgins, E. T., Friedman, R. S., Harlow, R. E., Idson, L. C., Ayduk, O. N., & Taylor, A. (2000). Achievement orientations from subjective histories of success: Promotion pride versus prevention pride. European Journal of Social Psychology, 30, 1-23.
- Liberman, N., Idson, L. C., Camacho, S. J., & Higgins, E. T. (1999). Promotion and prevention choices between stability and change. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77,1135-1145.