Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Regulatory focus theory and goal pursuit
How does RFT explain goal pursuit?
Overview[edit | edit source]
How do you approach your goals? Do you run towards the challenge, determined to command and conquer the missions set before you? Or is your approach more careful, meticulously scrutinising every little detail, making sure everything is absolutely perfect? How does the way you approach goals affect your life in work, love, family, and how you live day by day? Are there more effective ways to approach those same goals that you haven't yet considered? The answers to such questions make up the basis of regulatory focus theory - a theory which sets out to explain the different motivational strategies that make up human behaviour.
This chapter discusses what constitutes regulatory focus theory, how it explains goal pursuit, and how its valuable insights into human motivation can be practically applied in our lives.
Regulatory focus theory[edit | edit source]
Regulatory focus theory (RFT) (Higgins, 1997, 1998) postulates that people approach goals with the use of different behavioural strategies depending on the type of goal that they are striving to achieve. RFT is concerned with how people act in order to achieve their goals, as opposed to why (Wallace & Chen, 2006; Wallace, Johnson, & Frazier, 2009; Wallace, Little, & Shull, 2008). Regulatory focus has been recognised as being the mediating force between goal orientation and goal attainment (Johnson, Shull, & Wallace, 2010). In understanding an individual's goal orientation it is therefore possible to understand the individual's general approach towards goals, or regulatory focus (Johnson et al., 2010). RFT can be used by individuals to understand themselves in regards to their motivation orientation, and also in order to determine the most effective behavioural strategy to adopt depending on the particular goal they are attempting to achieve.
RFT posits that there are two fundamental systems of goal pursuit: promotion-focus orientation and prevention-focus orientation (Cesario, Higgins & Scholer, 2008).
Promotion-focus and prevention-focus orientation[edit | edit source]
Promotion-focus orientation[edit | edit source]
Individuals in a promotion-focus orientation frame goals in accordance to achievement, accomplishment and advancement (Kurman & Hui, 2011). For example, a promotion focus would be found in an individual working hard to achieve a promotion at work, a student seeking to graduate with a master’s degree in university, or an athlete training diligently to accomplish their dream of winning a gold medal in the Olympics. For the individual with a promotion-focus orientation, success is perceived as a gain; it means achieving a goal and accomplishing something of significance. Eagerness is the key motivating factor required for individuals to achieve these goals (Cho, Loibl, & Geistfeld, 2014). Promotion goals characterise the "ideal self" - that is, the version of the self that an individual strives to actualise and become. People who hold self-direction and achievement values are motivated by positive feedback (Van-Dijk & Kluger, 2004). They are generally more open to creativity and possibilities than individuals with a chronic prevention-focus (Friedman & Förster, 2001).
A person’s inclination to utilise promotion-focused behaviour is a result of both their parenting and being raised in a promotion-focused culture (e.g., Italy and the United States of America) (Fulmer et al., 2010). People may adopt a promotion focus situationally when primed by their environment, or when it is required in order to achieve a specific goal. It can also become a chronic state of mind (Costa, Farias, & Angelo, 2018). This happens when individual is internally promotion-focused as a result of having deeply integrated the values of achievement, accomplishment, and success.
Promotion-focus orientation explains goal pursuit by being the key behavioural manifestation and force that results in an individual's achievement of their goals and aspirations. Together with prevention-focus orientation, it is a crucial mediating factor between goal setting and goal achievement.
Prevention-focus orientation[edit | edit source]
Prevention-focus orientation is evoked out of the motivation for stability, as it concerns goals pertaining to preventing bad and unwanted things from taking place (Kurman & Hui, 2011). Individuals in a prevention-focus orientation perceive goals in accordance to duties and responsibilities, and are inclined to value safety and security. They are motivated mainly by external influences such as obligations, social pressures, and social responsibilities (Aaker & Lee, 2001). For example, a prevention focus is being enacted when an individual is carefully completing their tax return, abiding by the law when driving, and paying their bills on time. For the individual with prevention-focus orientation, success is the absence of negative outcomes (Kurman & Hui, 2011).Vigilance is the key motivating factor to achieving these goals (Cho et al., 2014). Prevention goals characterise the "ought self" - that is, the version of the self that an individual feels that they must live up to in accordance with their perceived duties and responsibilities. People who hold values pertaining to safety, security, and conformity are motivated by negative feedback (Van-Dijk & Kluger, 2004).
Bicultural studies have found that prevention-focus orientation is more prevalent in traditional, collectivist, and hierarchical cultures such as Japan, India, and China, as opposed to individualistic, liberal, and egalitarian cultures which tend to be more promotion oriented (Lalwani, Shrum, & Chiu, 2009; Lee, Aaker, & Gardner, 2000; Zhang & Mittal, 2007).
Prevention-focus orientation explains goal pursuit by being the key behavioural manifestation and force that results in an individual preventing unwanted things from happening. With vigilance and caution an individual with a prevention-focus orientation can avoid making mistakes in their coursework which can lead to achieving a high GPA; they can abide by the law which can result in not getting into trouble with authorities; and they can enjoy the peace of mind and stability knowing that all of their bills have been paid on time.
Regulatory focus in the brain[edit | edit source]
RFT has been supported by physiological evidence in terms of where and how it functions within the brain. Through the use of EEG, Shah, Higgins, & Friedman (1998) found that regulatory focus is implicated with asymmetrical frontal cortical stimulation. Specifically, promotion-focus is involved with greater left frontal activity, and prevention-focus is connected with greater right frontal activity. This research corresponds with other research into how motivation is implicated in the brain. For example, research by Davidson (2012) found that activation in the left lobe of the prefrontal cortex is associated with approach motivation and positive emotion, while activation in the right lobe is associated with avoidance and negative emotion.
Summary[edit | edit source]
Promotion-focus and prevention-focus both serve different functions which are equally important and useful in our lives. They explain goal pursuit by being the energising force behind motivated action, bridging the gap between goal-setting and goal achievement. Individuals may be predisposed to being more promotion-focused or more prevention-focused, or they may have a balance of the two. Both orientations have positive and negative aspects, but when applied to the right contexts in life they prove critical to achieving our goals. As regulatory focus is an internal process within the individual, the valuable insights of RFT are applicable across various domains of our everyday lives.
How RFT explains goal pursuit in everyday life[edit | edit source]
Research into RFT has elicited many findings that contribute to our understanding of goal pursuit in many different areas and facets of life. Three examples will be explored below.
In the workplace[edit | edit source]
Much research into how RFT applies in the workplace has been conducted. A meta-analysis on person-environment fit in the workplace (Kristof-Brown, Zimmerman, & Johnson, 2005) routinely found that when employees' values and goals are congruent with the organisation, this "fit" has positive effects on the productivity of the organisation. Such research has thus been utilised within organisations to more effectively hire employees and designate them to positions and tasks that are suitable and specific to their self-identity, skills, and regulatory focus (Johnson et al., 2010).
Both promotion- and prevention-focus have their place in regards to the successful running of an organisation or business (Johnson et al., 2010). If an organisation is too promotion-focused it may result in not paying enough attention to the finer details and taking reckless risks, which could lead to disastrous consequences. If an organisation is too prevention-focused and conservative it may stagnate in its attempts to keep the status quo and avoid change. Thus, businesses and organisations require both innovation and vigilance: the creativity, eagerness, and innovative mind of the promotion-oriented individual, and the careful, methodical, and vigilant mind of the prevention-oriented individual.
Understanding RFT and how it applies in the workplace is highly beneficial for both employers and employees:
In leadership style and behaviour[edit | edit source]
RFT has been researched extensively in order to understand how different leadership styles prime promotion- or prevention-focus in subordinates. Kark and Van-Dijk (2007) found that a charismatic and transformational leadership style has a substantial impact in arousing promotion-focus in subordinates, whereas a monitoring and transactional leadership style is likely to evoke prevention-focus. Understanding RFT and knowing how to prime the desired type of approach motivation is therefore invaluable for leaders in order to guide their followers towards goal achievement.
Promotion-Focus[edit | edit source]
Prevention-focus[edit | edit source]
You can use this knowledge to...[edit | edit source]
Understanding promotion- and prevention-focus and how to evoke these motivational approaches can be very beneficial for parents in regards to enhancing their communication with their children. When parents desire to encourage their child and evoke their promotion-focus, they can do this by:
In dating and relationships[edit | edit source]
Research has also been conducted on how RFT applies to and functions within dating. In a study of how the dominant motivations (promotion- or prevention-orientation) affect the behaviour of people in a speed-dating setting, Finkel, Eastwick & Matthews (2007) found that promotion-oriented individuals overtly flirted more with their prospective dates and pursued them more later on in the night than did prevention-oriented individuals. They were more successful for two reasons. One, as a result of displaying their attraction they were more likely to arouse reciprocal attraction from their dates, and; two, out of the desire to gain potential dates, they risked failure more often by displaying their interest. To protect themselves from failure and rejection, prevention-oriented individuals initiated less acts of flirtation and displays of attraction, thereby missing potential opportunities with prospective dates.
In regards to relationships, research has shown that having a promotion-focused partner means that they will be more likely to help and support their partner to become their ideal self, or the best version of themselves (Righetti, Rusbult, & Finkenauer, 2010). They do this by praising their partner frequently, providing opportunities for self-growth and self-development, and pushing them to go for what they want in life (Righetti et al., 2010). However, prevention-focused partners have been found to be more likely to sacrifice their own needs in order to accommodate their partner's needs (Winterheld & Simpson, 2011). They tend to merge their own goals with those of their partner's, and be more devoted to their relationship (Winterheld & Simpson, 2011). In a study by Bohns et al. (2013), mixed-motivated married couples were found to have the highest relationship satisfaction, as long as they hold shared goals. This is due to married couples generally having goals pertaining to both growth and security; they are thus able to support each other with accomplishing both types of goals (Molden, Lucas, Finkel, Kumashiro, & Rusbult, 2009).
RFT is a very useful framework through which to view romance and relationships, and to reflect on who and how we are in regards to love. With dating, understanding RFT may allow one to perceive the utility of different approaches if they find that their current approach has been unsuccessful. Prevention-focused individuals are able to learn a substantial amount by looking at dating and relationships from a promotion-oriented perspective. By doing this they may come to the understanding that to succeed in the dating world one must take action and risk failure and rejection in order to achieve setting a date with a potential partner. Promotion-oriented individuals are also able to learn from a prevention-oriented perspective. To avoid embarrassment and rejection, they may learn to be more vigilant when detecting cues and signs in regards to whether the person they are interested in is reciprocating interest or not.
RFT is also beneficial in understanding and determining what kind of partner you are in relationships, and what kind of partner is best suited for you. RFT is thus useful when reflecting upon the kind of person one wants as a partner based upon their values and what is most important to them in life. It may also help an individual to realise that perhaps the person they are currently in a relationship with is not best suited to their needs. However, comprehending RFT may lead to the strengthening of a relationship, as it may help clarify to the individual their partner's positive attributes which they may have been overlooking or taking for granted.
Conclusion[edit | edit source]
RFT explains goal pursuit by positing that we approach goals by using a regulatory focus. This regulatory focus serves as the motivating force that helps us break through barriers to achieve our goals and to get us to where we want to go in life. It is made up of promotion-focus orientation and prevention-focus orientation. Both orientations have their strengths and weaknesses. We may find in our lives that we are primarily either promotion-focused or prevention-focused, and we may sometimes get stuck. However, with knowing about RFT we can learn to adopt a well-rounded approach and have the best of both worlds. RFT is therefore extremely useful in helping us to approach life's challenges, overcome obstacles, and achieve our grandest goals.
See also[edit | edit source]
- Achievement goal orientation and academic motivation (Book chapter, 2014)
- Goal setting (Book chapter, 2013)
- Goal setting and happiness (Book chapter, 2011)
- Goal setting techniques (Book chapter, 2018)
References[edit | edit source]
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Cesario, J., Higgins, E. T., & Scholer, A. A. (2008). Regulatory fit and persuasion: Basic principles and remaining questions. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2, 444-463. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-9004.2007.00055.x
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Costa, M. F., Farias, S. A., & Angelo, C. F. (2018). Chronic regulatory focus: Resist impulse consumption or let it happen? Review of Business Management, 20, 619-637. https://doi.org/0.7819/rbgn.v0i0.3954
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