Approach or avoidance matching

silent sentry by woodleywonderworks

Do you think they're motiviated by a promotion or prevention focus?

A few weeks ago I wrote about regulatory focus theory (approach and avoidance motivations) and its possible impact on your career satisfaction.

To summarise quickly: approach or promotion focus is about trying to achieve positive outcomes, whereas avoidance or prevention focus is about trying to preclude negative outcomes.

Different types of goals and situations can induce either prevention or promotion focus. Benign environments tend to lead to promotion focus because people feel more inclined to take risks, whereas threatening environments tend to encourage prevention focus so that they are less likely to make damaging mistakes.

Having said that, most people will have a default approach they take to new situations. Generally, people feel more motivated about their goals if they can pursue them in a manner which fits with their regulatory focus. So, promotion-oriented individuals will feel more engaged if they are allowed to pursue goals in a positive, eager manner and prevention-oriented individuals feel better if they are allowed to be careful and vigilant.

A recent study by Righetti et al. (2011) looked at how the regulatory focus of someone trying to achieve a goal was affected by the focus of someone who was advising or supporting them.

In their research they tried to examine the effect of receiving advice from someone with the same or different orientation on an individual’s motivation for and enjoyment of a particular goal. What they found was an asymmetrical relationship. People with a promotion orientation were more motivated when working with someone who also had a promotion orientation. However, prevention-oriented people demonstrated no significant preference for their partner to be prevention or promotion focused.

The authors speculated on a number of reasons why this might be:

  • Promotion-oriented people might be more geared up to seek and receive new information from external sources because they are looking for opportunities to advance. Prevention-oriented people, on the other hand, are more focused on potential threats. New information from others people might represent a threat and is therefore avoided.
  • Promotion orientation tends to lead to more global processing — looking at the bigger picture — whilst prevention orientation tends to lead to more local processing — focusing on the immediate. So, people in a prevention-oriented mode may not see the immediate value of someone else’s perspective even if it is similar to theirs. In fact, they may not even notice the similarity because they are focused on differences.
  • Prevention-oriented people may be less likely to seek support from others because they are more sensitive to social rejection. This social anxiety might get in the way of them taking on board useful advice.

Some questions to ponder

  • Is the increased emphasis on exams and testing in schools, coupled with the awareness of the negative financial implications of choosing the wrong university course, coupled with the threatening economic environment likely to drive more people towards a prevention orientation when choosing courses and careers?
  • If people with a prevention or avoidance motivation are less likely to seek help and less likely to value it if they get it, what can we do to attract these people to use and to benefit from our services?
  • Do you know what your default preference for approach or avoidance is? What impact does it have on the clients you work with?

Further reading

Righetti, F., Finkenauer, C. & Rusbult, C. (2011). The benefits of interpersonal regulatory fit for individual goal pursuit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(4), 720-736. DOI: 10.1037/a0023592

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