I’ve been an optimist since the day I was born. If you’ve read my blog for any length of time you probably think I’m either incredibly fortunate or unbelievably naïve depending upon your perspective. Yet after reading a new book, I not only understand a great deal more about what motivates me and why, I’ve also developed a much higher appreciation for those more pessimistic than me. In fact, sometimes the best approach for any of us is to ramp up our prevention-focus and practice a bit of defensive-pessimism depending upon the circumstances. That’s right, I now know that even a diehard optimist like me can benefit from being a little pessimistic.
My new appreciation comes from a book entitled, Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing The World For Success and Influence, written by Heidi Grant Halvorson and E. Tory Higgins from the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University. They admit that optimism carries numerous benefits by saying, “Study after study shows that, compared to pessimists, optimists enjoy better physical health and recover more quickly from illness…They have more satisfying relationships and are more willing to accept a mutually beneficial compromise. Optimists are, on average more likely to succeed in reaching their goals than pessimists.” Yet, despite that glowing perspective, Halvorson and Higgins are quick to say that their research shows, “…there are those for whom the best way to ensure success is actually to believe they might fail.”
Early on the book suggests that all of us approach life with either a promotion-focus (typically an optimistic approach) or a prevention-focus (a more pessimistic approach.) Promotion-focused people seek opportunity and excel at creativity and innovation, while prevention-focused people remain most concerned about carefully meeting responsibilities, securing safety and doing the right thing. And while everyone has a little of each of these approaches within them, most of us have a dominant motivational focus that we use to routinely face life’s challenges and demands. About a year ago I wrote a blog post about these two perspectives that more clearly explains the difference. (If you want to read more you can find it here.) And while I found that previous information interesting and helpful, ideas in the new book allowed me to explore the issue more deeply and in a more practical way.
According to Halvorson and Higgins we humans are pre-programmed with two basic needs, nurturance and security. And in so many ways, that boils down to what we’ve all likely heard before, that most of our actions are guided to approach pleasure and avoid pain. The problem is, what is pleasurable and painful to me is affected by my focus. For example, as a promotion-minded optimist, I find great pleasure in filling my life with positives, trying new things, going new places, embracing new possibilities. What’s most painful to me is missing out on what I perceive as opportunity. When I read about it, even my FOMO (fear-of-missing-out) is a symptom of my promotion-focused approach to life.
On the other hand, a prevention-focused person takes great pleasure in fulfilling obligations, doing what’s right, and meeting their responsibilities. Finding peace, calm and safety is a primary goal. This type of person feels the most pain when they fail to stop a mistake, cause a loss, or receive punishment for something that should or could have been avoided. My father was a great example of a man who found pleasure in being prevention-focused, but until I read this book I never fully appreciated his motivations or understood his pessimism.
A perfect example of the differences of our dominant focus pattern occurred when I first got together with Thom (who later became my husband). Not even two months after meeting Thom, I packed up everything I owned and moved with him to North Carolina to open a nightclub. Such risky but adventurous behavior is clearly the work of a promotion-focused person who had no doubts she had met the man she would eventually marry. However, to my prevention-focused father, I was not only headed to ruin and destruction, but according to him I had likely blown any chance that Thom would ever marry me under the circumstances. Fortunately for me, Thom is as promotion-focused as I am and we were, and remain, a perfect match. Once we married, my father grew to love and appreciate Thom, at least partly because Thom showed my father that he did indeed care for me, fulfilled his obligations to me, and from my dad’s perspective, kept me safe.
What Are The Benefits Of Being Prevention-Focused?
In addition to now being able to appreciate the temperament of people like my father, Halvorson and Higgins provide plenty of incidents when it would be wise for all of us to practice a bit of prevention-focus in our own lives. Here is a list of times when a person with a practical prevention-focus can be much more desirable than an all-out optimist.
1) Any time you want something done accurately and carefully—think dentist, surgeon or proof-reader.
2) When you need to be detail oriented—like when it’s time to do your taxes.
3) When you want to buy something that is reliable and the best value for your money.
4) When you have someone else managing your money or other valuables.
5) When you need to hang on to what you have. For example, prevention-focused people take longer to lose weight or quit smoking, but are more likely to keep off the weight or avoid smoking in the future than the promotion-focused.
6) When you need to get a job done on time. Prevention-focused people seldom procrastinate.
7) When you need to consider what could go wrong because it has huge ramifications. (i.e. going deeply into debt, safety for your children, not practicing preventative medicine, gambling, going to war, etc.)
8) When you know there will be lots of distractions and obstacles keeping you from your goal.
9) When you need to ignore and persevere in spite of criticism.
What Causes Us To Be Prevention-Focused Or Promotion-Focused?
What makes a person one or the other? Halvorson and Higgins says there are four leading causes:
1) The way you were raised by your parents. If parents praised you and encouraged you when you did well, and withdrew love when you did something bad, that is promotion-parenting. If your parents punished and criticized you when you did something wrong, but overlooked and provided peace when you did something well, that is prevention-parenting.
2) Your innate temperament to be either an optimist (promotion) or a pessimist (prevention.)
3) Your culture and environment is either primarily promotion or prevention focused. Western cultures like the U.S. are highly individualized and forward thinking—making most of us, and our country in general, promotion-focused. Eastern and Latin American cultures tend to be much more focused on group dynamics and interdependence, leading to more prevention-focus.
4) Your age. Most children gravitate toward an idealistic, opportunistic promotion-focus, but we all have a tendency to become more prevention-focused as we get older.
How Does Your Focus Affect Love & Relationships?
One of the more interesting ways to consider the prevention-focused vs. the promotion-focused is in the area of love and relationships. As I explained above, Thom and I were classic in our promotion based attraction to one another in such fast, idealistic and possibly foolhardy fashion. On the flip side, a prevention-focused person approaches relationships slowly, carefully and cautiously, seeing the primary goals of a relationship to be a source of devotion, reassurance and safety.
As a promotion-focused couple seeking love, closeness and possibility, Thom and I moved in together after barely knowing each other and married a few months later. A prevention-focused person usually takes years to become engaged and then more years to marry. However, once married, a prevention-focused person is much less likely to divorce or leave their partner because their focus on relationship is so different. The prevention-focused hate the idea of losing anything they have worked hard to build—including a less than harmonious marriage.
As my own father and my mother demonstrated several times in their relationship, the prevention-focused practice a willingness to merge their own goals with one another and to sacrifice their own needs to accommodate the other on many occasions. Security, peace of mind, and loyalty mean the most to them. After reading about the differences in how prevention-focused people approach relationships, I now understand why so many people stay in relationships that from the outside look nothing more than accommodating. A prevention-focused person believes that what they have and find familiar is nearly always preferable to the unknown or the uncertain, even in relationships.
Many times when my father was still alive I found it difficult to understand where he was coming from. We clashed on several occasions when I thought he was being overly negative and a pessimist in spite of the possibilities. I’m now certain he was as equally frustrated with my ongoing optimism and what he surely judged as unrealistic foolishness. After reading Focus I am now better able to appreciate his perspective and the fact that for many prevention-focused people, how I view the world, what I write about, and my approach to life may seem nothing more than risky, superficial and naïve.
As with so many things, the truth is that there are benefits to both perspectives depending upon the circumstances. There are surely times when creatively taking chances and reaching for opportunity is called for in our lives. Other times, being cautious and careful is certainly the better choice. Perhaps as with so many things, it is both wise and SMART to be aware of our own tendencies and use them to make choices and decisions that work for us at any given time—and to appreciate and value those who see things from a different perspective.