Motivation and Decision Making

Tory Higgins explains how different systems of motivation -- promotion versus prevention -- influence the way people make decisions and the intensity with which they pursue their goals.
June 15, 2005
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How did you become interested in the psychology of decision making?

What I do today came out of an interest in why some people get depressed and other people get anxious when something bad happens in their life. I wanted to understand what underlying motivational systems could help explain that difference. That led me to a distinction between two ways in which people represent their goals and concerns. One is a promotion focus, where you think about what you’re doing as an accomplishment, something you aspire to, something you ideally want to happen. The other is a prevention focus, where you think of your goals and concerns as having more to do with safety and security issues and with duties and obligations.

That distinction between promotion and prevention turns out to be the answer to the original question of why some people get depressed and some people get anxious. I did a paper with Joel Brockner on emotions in the workplace, and basically we found that when things aren’t going well, people with a promotion focus start getting sad and discouraged and disappointed, whereas people with a prevention focus start getting anxious and nervous and tense and worried.

Over time, I became interested in how these systems affect decision making. What I discovered was that there’s a difference between promotion and prevention not only with respect to the way you represent your goal or concern but also in how you go about trying to reach the goal. This is not just a personality variable. When people are in a promotion or prevention state, they can be in that state because of a chronic tendency or because a situation puts them in that state.

In business, it’s often the case that an organization has a certain culture, and that culture can be more of a promotion culture or a prevention culture. When Intel was created, one of the cocreators was a very promotion-type person and the other was a very prevention-type person. The promotion person created the original theme of Intel, which was all about hopes and aspirations and ideals and progress. But in the next generation it became all about we have to be paranoid about the competition and making mistakes.

What we’ve discovered is that when you’re in a promotion state, you like to make decisions and try to solve problems in an eager way. You look for all possible means of advancement, so you have a tendency to be willing to consider lots of different possibilities. The way people in a prevention state like to pursue goals is through vigilance. What they hate is committing an error, so that leads them to narrow the number of alternatives they’re willing to consider. They tend to ask themselves, “What are the necessary alternatives?”

In entrepreneurial situations, if you’re in the promotion state, you get much more creativity. But these two systems are really trade-offs — there are costs and benefits of each. Promotion people will be more creative, but they don’t commit very well to any particular decision because as soon as someone says, “Well, what about this other possibility,” then they’re willing once again to consider a new possibility. Prevention people don’t consider as many possibilities, but once they make the decision, they’re committed to it. They’re much more likely, if obstacles occur or things get difficult, to persist. So there’s a trade-off between creativity and implementation.

Would it be an oversimplification to say that promoters are optimists and preventers are pessimists?

Well, you’d be two-thirds correct. It’s definitely true that promotion people are optimists. They have more confidence in themselves than is in fact justified, and the reason is that being optimistic and having a lot of confidence maintains their eagerness. They want to be eager — that’s what makes the system work. Prevention is in the family of pessimism, but it’s actually what’s called defensive pessimism. A defensive pessimist is the kind of person who would say, “It’s true that I’ve always succeeded in the past, but if I don’t work hard I could fail this time.” They want to make sure that they remain vigilant, because that’s what works in their system.

Strategically, promotion people are willing to take chances. They’re willing to make mistakes in order not to lose the possibility of a big victory. Prevention people are much more conservative. If you give them an alternative that they’re not sure about, they would prefer to stick with what they’ve got. Promotion people are always thinking about what they want to attain next, so they’re never satisfied with where they are, whereas prevention people want to maintain what they have. In the case of business leaders and managers, what they may be maintaining is their position of being at the top of their industry. And that could be very ambitious if you’re No. 1 in the world in computers or something. But the prevention focus will influence how they go about making decisions.

Can you talk about a specific study that you’ve done on motivation?

The latest research is concerned with a notion that I call regulatory fit. When you make decisions or pursue goals, you are always in some motivational state to begin with. In addition, you will always pursue the goal in some manner. In promotion, people prefer to do things in an eager way, and in prevention they tend to do things in a vigilant way. But you don’t always have control over how you make the decision or pursue the goal. So maybe you’re a promotion person and your boss wants you to do it in a vigilant way, or you’re in prevention but the whole company is all about eagerness. There are a lot of possibilities for nonfit. We’re interested in how this would affect decision making.

We have experimental methods for putting people into a promotion state or a prevention state, and we also have ways of measuring people’s chronic tendency to be in promotion or prevention. In this particular study, we selected people who we knew tended to be in a promotion state or a prevention state. We gave them a very simple choice between a Columbia coffee mug and cheap pen. The coffee mug was worth about $4.50, and the pen was worth about 25¢. We purposely chose these two objects so that just about everybody would choose the coffee mug, because we wanted everybody to choose the same thing.

What we manipulated was the way in which they made the decision. In one condition, we had them make the decision in an eager way, and in the other one we had them make the decision in a vigilant way. That process was independent of whether a person had a promotion orientation or a prevention orientation. So a promotion person had a fit if they did it in an eager way and a nonfit if they did it in a vigilant way.

After they made the decision, we said, we’re going to give you the opportunity to buy the mug. We told them, in this envelope is a fair price, and if you bid the price in the envelope or more than that, then you get the mug for whatever you offered. If you offer less than the price in the envelope, then you don’t get the mug. What we found was that the participants who were in the fit conditions offered to buy the mug for 50 to 60 percent more money. They would offer seven dollars, whereas the ones in the nonfit conditions would offer four dollars.

So making a decision in a fit condition makes you pursue a goal more aggressively?

We’ve discovered two things. One is that when you make a decision in a fit condition, you engage in what you’re doing more strongly. The second part of it is that you feel right about what you’re doing. So in this case, because you chose the mug and you like the mug, you have a positive response and a stronger engagement in the positive response, and because you feel right about your positive response to the mug, you’re willing to pay more. We have other research that shows that if you have a negative reaction to something, then fit intensifies the negative reaction.

Could business leaders use that insight to motivate their employees by sending the right kinds of messages to people with different motivational systems?

Certainly there are leadership styles of advancement and eagerness and there are other leadership styles that are very careful and concerned about maintaining things. The research shows that job satisfaction and productivity are influenced by these kinds of fit. There are regional as well as national variations in the tendency for people to be promotion or prevention focused: people in Japan and South Korea have a strong prevention focus, whereas Australians have a strong promotion focus. So if you know that about your culture, it would make sense to have thematic cultures and incentive systems that would create a fit for your employees. The other way of doing it is that if you’re introducing a task to a single employee, you could talk about gains or nonlosses in ways that would fit.

Are there other applications that business leaders could draw from your models of perception and judgment?

Joel Brockner and I did a paper on entrepreneurship. The basic idea is that if you want a company to be successful not just once but repeatedly, there are real advantages to having coleaders with different systems, because each one can set constraints on the costs of the other. A number of very successful companies have had coleaders like that. These are independent systems, so one person can be high in promotion and high in prevention, or you could be low in both. If someone’s strong on both, that might be good if they know when to switch in and out. Your best possible leader would be someone who knows when to be in promotion and when to be in prevention.

I think Franklin Roosevelt would be that kind of leader, because he certainly went in and out of promotion and prevention. I would probably argue that overall, in terms of his decisions, he was pretty promotion focused. But as a politician he was very careful — he wouldn’t take chances. So when Eleanor Roosevelt was trying to get him to promote racial issues, for example, he wouldn’t do it. A lot of the issues that he fought for were promotion kinds of issues, but the way he behaved as a politician was pretty prevention focused. So he would have been a person, I think, who was very high on both.

What I have read would suggest that companies that are repeat successes often have a team where one leader is strong in promotion and one is strong in prevention. The problem with the systems is that if you’re very strong in promotion, there’s a risk that you will be hypereager, and that comes out as manic and impulsive. If you’re too prevention focused, then you’re going to be hypervigilant, and that’s almost like being phobic. If you’re strong in both systems, you’re very unlikely to ever be hypereager or hypervigilant, because each system sets constraints on the other. So that’s probably the best situation, but it requires that you know when to switch.


Tory Higgins is professor of management at Columbia Business School, the Stanley Schachter Professor of Psychology in the Department of Psychology and director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University.

E. Tory Higgins

Professor Higgins, the Stanley Schachter Professor of Psychology and Professor of Business is an expert on motivation and decision making. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. He is the author of Beyond Pleasure and Pain: How Motivation Works (Oxford) and co-author of Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence (Penguin). He teaches an...

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Read the Research

E. Tory Higgins

"Making a Good Decision: Value from Fit"


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Joel Brockner, E. Tory Higgins

"Regulatory Focus Theory: Implications for the Study of Emotions at Work"


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Joel Brockner, E. Tory Higgins, Murray Low

"Regulatory Focus Theory and the Entrepreneurial Process"


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E. Tory Higgins

"Categorization Under Uncertainty: Resolving Vagueness and Ambiguity with Eager Versus Vigilant Strategies"


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