Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Regulatory focus theory and goal pursuit

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Regulatory focus theory and goal pursuit:
How does RFT explain goal pursuit?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Promotion-focus (B. Collum, 2016)

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.

Focus questions:

  • What is regulatory focus theory?
  • How does regulatory focus theory explain goal pursuit?
  • How can this knowledge be practically applied in everyday life?

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]

[Provide more detail]

Promotion-focus orientation[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. RFT flowchart

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]

Figure 3. The prefrontal cortex

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.

Practical uses for employers and employees

Understanding RFT and how it applies in the workplace is highly beneficial for both employers and employees:

  • Employers can analyse the specific needs of their organisation and designate employees to the particular roles which are best suited to them based on their regulatory foci, resulting in the successful operation of their business (Johnson et al., 2010). For example, if a business wishes to hire a salesperson to sell their products to customers with enthusiasm and eagerness in pursuit of the goal of achieving a high commission, it is a good idea to hire and individuals with a promotion-focus orientation. If they wish to hire a meticulous technician who pays careful attention to details, it is a good idea to hire someone with a prevention-focus orientation.
  • Employers can use RFT to scrutinise their organisation to determine whether they require to innovate and change and thereby adopt a more promotion-focus approach, or recognise when they need to slow down stabilise, thereby adopting a more prevention-focus approach.
  • Employees can use their understanding of RFT to analyse themselves in order to determine what regulatory focus best represents them and how they approach life. They can then use this information to better determine what career path or job position is best suited to who they are as an individual and their values, thereby resulting in an effective person-environment "fit" and higher job satisfaction.

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.

How to motivate people

Promotion-Focus[edit | edit source]

  • Use language and symbols based on ideals and inspirational messages. This is achieved by appealing to your followers' ideal self, and thus their higher values, goals, and optimal notions of how the organisation, team, society, or world could be (Kark & Van-Dijk, 2007).
  • Communicate in a way that helps your team to visualise exceptional achievements and success (Ehrhart & Klein, 2001).
  • Frame the goal as a desired challenge (Kark & Van-Dijk, 2007).
  • Stress the common ground that your team shares (Kark & Van-Dijk, 2007).
  • Connect individual goals to the interests of your group (Kark & Van-Dijk, 2007).
  • Consider your followers' individual growth and development (Kark & Shamir, 2002).
  • Be an inspirational behavioural role model with a chronic promotion-focus (Kark & Van-Dijk, 2007).

Prevention-focus[edit | edit source]

  • Appeal to your followers' ought self. This is done by framing the situation in terms of avoiding possible losses, and stressing the importance of your team fulfilling their duties, responsibilities, and obligations (Kark & Van-Dijk, 2007).
  • Adopt a monitoring or transactional leadership style, thereby acting as a prevention-oriented role model for your team (Kark & Van-Dijk, 2007).
  • Reward your team for their loyalty and hard work for keeping the business stable (Kark & Van-Dijk, 2007).

You can use this knowledge to...[edit | edit source]

  • Motivate your colleagues in your organisation to work together in order to achieve large profits.
  • Inspire your teammates to defeat the opposition.
  • Guide your employees to keep the running of the retail business safe and steady.

Leadership in parenting
Figure 4. Leadership in parenting (L. Metzler, 2015)

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:

  • Being a positive and inspirational role model.
  • Framing key, everyday instances in their child's life in a positive, promotion-focused manner, by emphasising the gains they will achieve if they, for instance, do well in school ("you will have so many exciting career opportunities!"); smile and be polite with people that they meet ("you will always be welcome everywhere and will easily make friends"); or play their very best in a sport they play on weekends ("you are getting better and better every time you play! I am so proud of you!").
  • Rewarding them with love and affection.
  • Making it clear in their words and actions that they wholeheartedly support their child's individual growth and development.

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.

Test yourself

1 John trains day and night in preparation for an upcoming marathon. He hopes and dreams to win the race, or at the very least achieve a personal best time. According to RFT, what is this man displaying?

Growth mindset
Effectance motivation
Promotion-focus orientation
Motivation intensity

2 The motivational orientation of the prevention-focused is to avoid losses. True or false?


3 Betty works as a secretary at a busy clinic. She is highly organised and keeps the files of the patients in impeccable order. According to RFT, Betty is highly:

Prevention-focus orientated

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]

References[edit | edit source]

Aaker, J. L., & Lee, A. Y. (2001). 'I' seek pleasures and 'we' avoid pains: The role of self-regulatory goals in information processing and persuasion. Journal of Consumer Research, 28, 33-49.

Bohns, V. K., Lucas, G. M., Molden, D. C., Finkel, E. J., Coolsen, M. K., Kumashiro, M., Rusbult, C. E., & Higgins, E. T. (2013). Opposites fit: Regulatory focus complementarity and relationship well-being. Social Cognition, 31, 1-14.

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.

Cho, S. H., Loibl, C., & Geistfeld, L. (2014). Motivation for emergency and retirement saving: An examination of Regulatory Focus Theory. International Journal of Consumer Studies, 38, 701-711.

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.

Davidson, R. J. (2012). The emotional life of your brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

Ehrhart, M. G., & Klein, K. J. (2001). Predicting followers' preferences for charismatic leadership: The influence of follower values and personality. The Leadership Quarterly, 12, 153-179.

Finkel, E. J., Eastwick, P. W., & Matthews, J. (2007). Speed-dating as an invaluable tool for studying romantic attraction: A methodological primer. Personal Relationships, 14, 149-166.

Friedman, R. S., & Förster, J. (2001). The effects of promotion and prevention cues on creativity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 1001-1013.

Fulmer, C. A., Gelfand, M. J., Kruglanski, A. W., Kim-Prieto, C., Diener, E., Pierro, A., & Higgins, E. T. (2010). On "feeling right" in cultural contexts: How person-culture match affects self-esteem and subjective well-being. Psychological Science, 21, 1563-1570.

Higgins, E. T. (1997). Beyond pleasure and pain. American Psychologist, 52, 1280–1300.

Higgins, E. T. (1998). Promotion and prevention: Regulatory focus as a motivational principle. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 30 1–46. New York: Academic Press.

Johnson, P. D., Shull, A., & Wallace, J. C. (2010) Regulatory focus as a mediator in goal orientation and performance relationships. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 32, 751-766.

Kark, R., & Shamir, B. (2002). The duel effect of transformational leadership: Priming relational and collective selves and further effects on followers. In B.J. Avolio & F. J. Yammarino (Eds.), Transformational and charismatic leadership: The road ahead, 2, 67-91. Amsterdam: JA1 Press

Kark, R., & Van-Dijk, D. (2007). Motivation to lead, motivation to follow: The role of the self-regulatory focus in leadership processes. Academy of Management Review, 32, 500-528.

Kristof-Brown, A. L., Zimmerman, R. D., & Johnson, E. C. (2005). Consequences of individuals' fit at work: A meta-analysis of person-job, person-organization, person-group, and person-supervisor fit. Personnel Psychology, 58, 281-342.

Kurman, J., & Hui, C. (2011). Promotion, prevention, or both: Regulatory focus and culture revisited. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 5, 1-16.

Lalwani, A. K., Shrum, L. J., & Chiu, C. Y. (2009). Motivated response styles: The role of cultural values, regulatory focus, and self-consciousness in socially desirable responding. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 870-872.

Lee, A. Y., Aaker, J. L., & Gardner, W. L. (2000). The pleasures and pains of distinct self-construals: The role of interdependence in regulatory focus. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 1122-1134.

Molden, D. C., Lucas, G. M., Finkel, E. J., Kumashiro, M., & Rusbult, C. E. (2009). Perceived support for promotion-focused and prevention-focused goals: Associations with well-being in unmarried and married couples. Psychological Science, 20, 787-793.

Righetti, F., Rusbult, C. E., & Finkenauer, C. (2010). Regulatory focus and the Michelangelo phenomenon: How close partners promote one another's ideal selves. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 972-985.

Shah, J., Higgins, E. T., & Friedman, R. S. (1998). Performance incentives and means: How regulatory focus influences goal attainment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 285-293.

Van-Dijk, D., & Kluger, A. N. (2004). Feedback sign effect on motivation: Is it moderated by regulatory focus? Applied Psychology: An International Review, 53, 113-135.

Wallace, J. C., & Chen, G. (2006). A multilevel integration of personality, climate, self-regulation, and performance. Personnel Psychology, 59, 529-557.

Wallace, J. C., Johnson, P. D., & Frazier, M. L. (2009). An examination of the factorial, construct, and predictive validity and utility of the Regulatory Focus at Work Scale. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 30, 805-831.

Wallace, J. C., Little, L. M., & Shull, A. (2008). The moderating effects of task complexity on the relationship between regulatory foci and safety and production performance. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 13, 95-104.

Winterheld, H. A., & Simpson, J. A. (2011). Seeking security or growth: A regulatory focus perspective on motivations in romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 935-954.

Zhang, Y., & Mittal, V. (2007). The attractiveness of enriched and impoverished options: Culture, self-construal, and regulatory focus. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 588-598.

External links[edit | edit source]