Do you see the glass half-full or half-empty? Do you hunt down risk or avoid it like the plague? Do you prefer the excitement of adventure or the comfort of the familiar? Until recently I was under the impression that those questions simply determined whether a person was an optimist or a pessimist. However, now I know they actually reveal two different but important motivational perspectives—a promotional focus or the prevention focus. And while each of us tends to favor one or the other, we all use both ways to focus from time to time. What’s even more important to understand is how each kind differs and how using one or the other can go a long way toward helping us stay motivated, and live a more fulfilled and rewarding life.
Last week I mentioned that I just finished reading a book by Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D. entitled Succeed. I shared there what I considered to be intriguing information about how we can either create goals to Be-Good or to Get-Better. But the fascination didn’t stop there. Another largely unknown area of motivational focus is that of promotion or prevention. While Be-Good or Get-Better suggests that we focus on what kind of goals we are setting in the first place, once we have a particular goal in mind, we then go about achieving it from one or the other perspective—either the promotion focus or the prevention focus.
So what’s the difference? According to Halvorson, “Promotion-focused goals are thought about in terms of achievement and accomplishment. They are about doing something you would ideally like to do…they are about maximizing gains (and avoiding missed opportunities). Reaching a promotion goal makes you want to say, “Whoo-hoo! I did it” while doing the happy dance.
On the other hand, “Prevention focused goals are thought about in terms of safety and danger. They are about fulfilling responsibilities, doing the things you feel you ought to do…they are about minimizing losses, trying to hang on to what you’ve got.” Accomplishing a prevention goal makes you want to say, “Phew! I dodged a bullet there!” and breathe a sigh of relief. When you compare the two concepts from opposing perspectives, it’s easier to see that there are times when one focus is preferable to another.
For example, if your teenage daughter is just learning to drive, her motivation is probably promotion-focused. She can’t wait to get out there and enjoy the open road and all the places it will take her. However, no matter how promotion-focused you are, your motivation will likely swing toward prevention as you try to teach her about safety and the dangers that can result from teen driving accidents. Or what about when you are getting ready to file your federal income taxes? Anyone with a dominant promotion focus just wants to get it over and done as quickly as possible with big hopes for a large refund. But the better approach might be one of prevention-focus where a person carefully handles the details, slowly calculates the information and ultimately fulfills the responsibility.
Until I learned about the difference between promotion focus and prevention focus I always believed that being an optimist was better in every way. However, Halvorson explains how both perspectives have their advantages—it just depends on what you hope to accomplish. In fact, asking employees to take a test that determines their primary focus can often reveal whether they will succeed and thrive in the position, or ultimately fail. Obviously, if you are in pursuit of a job, it is always wise for you to recognize that some positions are more suitable to your personality than others. Here are some other important differences to note:
You are promotion focused if:
- you are trying to fill your life with positives—like love, admiration, rewards and other pleasures.
- your goal is an achievement or something you hope to gain.
- you are excited, eager and enthusiastic about reaching your objective. In this case doubting or negative feedback will diminish your results and take the wind out of your sails.
- you are encouraged and motivated by hearing stories of how other people succeeded in spite of the odds.
- you hate missing out and often take risks.
- you say “yes” more than is always good for you.
- you like change and are always open to new possibilities.
- you enjoy abstract thinking, brainstorming and are very creative.
- you see your friendships in terms of what you will gain by those relationships and use eager and cheerful strategies to keep them going.
- you enjoy gambling and that issue can lead to addiction.
- you go for speed rather than accuracy.
- you can easily come up with new ideas but often falter when it comes to sticking with it for the long haul.
- You see the big picture and seize the moment!
You are prevention focused if:
- you are attempting to keep your life free of negatives—like guilt, punishment, danger and other pains.
- you see your goal as a necessity with low concern about measuring your chance of success.
- your goal is to be vigilant and steer clear of danger. You actually prefer negative feedback and doubt because it helps you stay focused and cautious.
- you are motivated by hearing cautionary tales, or of those who pursued a more vigilant realism.
- you prefer being “sure” before attempting any potential, and dislike false alarms or taking chances.
- you say “no” on a regular basis.
- you have a hard time changing or leaving a situation—preferring the devil you know to the one you don’t.
- your thinking is precise, concrete and specific. You are great with details and have a good memory for what you’ve seen and what still needs to be done.
- you see your friendships in terms of what you could lose and stay vigilant in maintaining them.
- you dislike anything that resembles a gamble and never have a gambling problem.
- you pick accuracy over speed.
- you resist new ideas but once you’re committed you will stay with and execute the plan until the end.
- you perform well in the face of distractions and temptations and never let things slip through the cracks.
Just like most things that occur in our world, there are advantages and disadvantages to both sides of the equation. Promotion focus and prevention focus are like that. And in spite of the obvious bias toward optimism in our culture, there are times when pessimism might be the better choice.
Until I took the time to understand the differences between these perspectives I was guilty of an optimism prejudice. I now know that anyone with a prevention focus has quite a bit to contribute to almost any situation. Plus, it’s wise to remember that even if we aren’t pessimistic or prevention focus by nature, by turning our focus in that direction we can keep our families, and ourselves safer. It helps us to go to the doctor for regular checkups and the dentist to keep our teeth free of cavities. It helps us to make better food choices at the grocery store and stay away from gambling tables in Vegas. It keeps us from throwing away our retirement funds for the hair-brain investment Uncle Louie is promising with a 50% return.
While there are times it is good to be an optimist, there are plenty of times when pessimism is the right approach. Ultimately, the SMART course of action is to stay awake and aware that we do have choices—be they promotion focused or prevention focused—when attempting to live the life of our dreams.