Regulatory Focus Theory
The Basic Idea
Imagine you’re attending a seminar in which two highly respected professionals discuss their career journey.
The first speaker, Maria, explains that when she was in college she had a vision of her ideal life, which fueled her ambition to reach the top of the corporate ladder. Clearly, Maria was more concerned about gains rather than losses.
The next speaker, Jacques, shares that his success was primarily motivated by a sense of duty to his family and a desire for financial security. Contrary to Maria, he was much more conscious of avoiding losses compared to making gains. Clearly, both of these mindsets were motivating, but which is more effective? Why do we differ in our motivational approaches, and how is it that we can still achieve success when motivated by wildly different things?
Regulatory focus theory examines the type of actions that individuals take in order to align themselves with their values and aspirations. The theory is centered around the pursuit of goals and asserts that there are two motivational systems: the promotion system and the prevention system. The former, the promotion system (of which Maria is aligned), is related to advancement toward achieving goals, and gains are the focus over non-gains.1 The latter, the prevention system (of which Jacques is aligned), is more focused on duties and responsibilities, and is more sensitive to losses versus non-losses.1
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Promotion System: A motivational approach focused on gains and accomplishments. Typically, those who think this way aren’t heavily concerned with losses. Instead, they tend to identify innovative ways to make strides towards their goals.
Prevention System: A motivational approach focused on safety and security, typically motivated by loss aversion. Rather than being motivated by aspirations, this type of person wants to avoid losses.
Tory Higgins first proposed regulatory focus theory in 1997 in a journal article titled Emotional Responses to Goal Attainment: Strength of Regulatory Focus as Moderator.2 In the article, he purports that people pursue goals in ways that are aligned with their values. Within this theory, there are two systems at play: the promotion system and the prevention system. The promotion system is primarily focused on achieving goals as a means of satisfying a need for ambition or accomplishment. Contrarily, in the prevention system, a goal is perceived as a responsibility or an “ought to.”
Regulatory focus theory supplements another of Higgins’ theories, the regulatory fit theory, which he first mentioned in a 2000 paper.3 Instead of focusing on the motivations behind actions, this secondary theory emphasizes the role of something feeling right and having a good fit with one’s values.4 In other words, when there is a match between one’s approach to achieving a goal and how one feels about that goal, a state of regulatory fit is produced.4 In this state, one feels a sense of rightness about their pursuit of the goal and becomes more engaged in the necessary steps to achieve it.4
Since these early publications, Dr. Higgins and others have continued to study applications of regulatory focus theory in diverse settings, including fair pay dispersion,5 the sustainable downscaling of production,6 and public service advertising appeals.7
E. Tory Higgins
A Professor of Business at Columbia University, where he also operates as the Stanley Schachter Professor of Psychology and Director of the Motivation Science Center. In addition to regulatory focus theory, he has spent much of his career studying priming and self-discrepancy theory, and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Popularity in the topic has notably increased since Higgins first proposed regulatory focus theory in 1997. In just the last five years (2017-2021), researchers have produced as many journal articles and chapters examining the theory as were published in all of the nearly twenty years prior (1997-2016), according to Google Scholar. Moreover, it’s being used to better understand important issues of our time, including sustainability and pay equity.
Scientists have also used it as a way to better understand the motivations behind moral decoupling. Moral decoupling occurs when we separate our judgments on moral transgressions from judgments on performance (Think: Clinton’s scandal was bad, but he was still a good president.).8 Prior to the introduction of regulatory focus theory, researchers believed moral decoupling to be an exercise of pure partisanship, with our own political or personal biases towards the person leading us to separate their moral character from their effectiveness. However, a recent study discovered that having a prevention mindset increases the likelihood that moral decoupling will occur, “help[ing to] reject an alternative account that an individual’s political orientation explains moral decoupling tendencies.”9
Despite early research being limited to motivation, the recent expansion of regulatory focus theory into the realms of sustainability, health, and moral psychology have further solidified its legitimacy across fields. Hopefully, the further expansion of regulatory focus theory will help us better make sense of our behaviors and hopefully aid in greater cultural cohesion, understanding, and progress.
Are people really limited to only two forms of motivation? While regulatory focus theory has been around for many years, the jury is still out on whether or not it truly captures how we are motivated. For example, when studying the role of feedback in medical school, investigators had trouble applying regulatory focus theory to real feedback scenarios, instead finding that one’s regulatory focus can change over time and that there was often a mix of regulatory focuses.10 Clearly, the insights and predictions of regulatory focus theory must be reconsidered in regard to the motivational complexity of tasks and motivation over time.10
How should sustainability-minded organizations frame their goals in order to enact results? Should they gear it toward prevention, promotion, or both? In the wake of increased dialogue on climate change in recent years, many studies have been conducted to answer these key questions.
One such study, from 2016, looked at the relationship between one’s regulatory focus and their response to the use of plastic water bottles.11 To do so, investigators made a distinction between chronic (i.e. one’s typical) motivation type and primed motivation type. They found that in order to increase pro-environmental responses, intensifying promotion focus will yield the most effective results, in both chronic and primed conditions.11 A 2018 article echoed these findings, stating that “individuals with a promotion focus seemed to be more inclined to buy green products as opposed to individuals in a prevention state.”12 While useful initial findings, scientists will need to conduct further research to see if these findings can be replicated in other conditions, especially as environmental concerns become more alarming.
Personal Health Decisions
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the issue of health is top of mind for everybody. Indeed, daily decisions concerning our health have become the norm, and engaging in health-protective behaviour has become important for the safety of ourselves and our communities. One study suggested that having a prevention focus means one is more likely to engage in such health-protective behavior.13 This can be understood by looking at the role of regret on the decision: individuals who are prevention-minded have a greater tendency than promotion-minded individuals to anticipate feeling regret if they don’t adopt a protective measure.13
Our daily habits are also crucial for our health. Unfortunately, advocating for change in these daily habits is highly difficult, and proper messaging is crucial in making suggestions stick. One study observed that when a healthy diet advocacy advertisement employed a promotion focus, slogans that emphasized the potential gains of a healthy diet led to a more positive view of the advertisement and healthy eating.14 Similarly, when the advertisement employed a prevention focus, loss framing yielded better attitudes towards the ad than gain framing.14 These differences in findings showcase the need for future investigations to best understand how to influence health-protective behaviors.
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- Scholer, A. A., Zou, X., Fujita, K., Stroessner, S. J., & Higgins, E. T. (2010). When Risk Seeking Becomes a Motivational Necessity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(2), 215–231. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0019715
- Higgins, E. T., Shah, J., & Friedman, R. (1997). Emotional responses to goal attainment: Strength of regulatory focus as moderator. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72(3), 515–525. https://doi.org/10.1037//0022-35126.96.36.1995
- Higgins, E. T. (2000). Making a good decision: Value from fit. American Psychologist, 55(11), 1217–1230. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.55.11.1217
- Higgins, E. T. (2005). Value From Regulatory Fit. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14(4), 209–213. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0963-7214.2005.00366.x
- Park, T.-Y., Kim, S., & Sung, L.-K. (2017). Fair pay dispersion: A regulatory focus theory view. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 142, 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.obhdp.2017.07.003
- Krpan, D., & Basso, F. (2021). Keep Degrowth or go Rebirth? Regulatory focus theory and the support for a sustainable downscaling of production and consumption. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 74, 101586. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2021.101586
- Chan, K., Shi, J., Agante, L., Opree, S. J., & Rajasakran, T. (2021). Applying regulatory fit theory and cultural values orientation to predict effectiveness of public service advertising appeals. International Review on Public and Nonprofit Marketing. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12208-021-00291-6
- Bhattacharjee, A., Berman, J. Z., & Reed, A. (2013). Tip of the Hat, Wag of the Finger: How Moral Decoupling Enables Consumers to Admire and Admonish. Journal of Consumer Research, 39(6), 1167–1184. https://doi.org/10.1086/667786
- Cowan, K., & Yazdanparast, A. (2021). Consequences of Moral Transgressions: How Regulatory Focus Orientation Motivates or Hinders Moral Decoupling. Journal of Business Ethics, 170(1), 115–132. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-019-04268-8
- Watling, C., Driessen, E., van der Vleuten, C. P. M., Vanstone, M., & Lingard, L. (2012). Understanding responses to feedback: The potential and limitations of regulatory focus theory. Medical Education, 46(6), 593–603. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2923.2012.04209.x
- Bhatnagar, N., & McKay-Nesbitt, J. (2016). Pro-environment advertising messages: The role of regulatory focus. International Journal of Advertising, 35(1), 4–22. https://doi.org/10.1080/02650487.2015.1101225
- Codini, A. P., Miniero, G., & Bonera, M. (2018). Why not promote promotion for green consumption?: The controversial role of regulatory focus. European Business Review, 30(5), 554–570. https://doi.org/10.1108/EBR-09-2016-0118
- Leder, S., Florack, A., & Keller, J. (2015). Self-regulation and protective health behaviour: How regulatory focus and anticipated regret are related to vaccination decisions. Psychology & Health, 30(2), 165–188. https://doi.org/10.1080/08870446.2014.954574
- Lin, C.-Y., & Yeh, W.-J. (2017). How Does Health-Related Advertising with a Regulatory Focus and Goal Framing Affect Attitudes toward Ads and Healthy Behavior Intentions? International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 14(12), 1507. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph14121507