10 Million Steps

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21 August 2019

Goal Setting: promotion and prevention mindsets

by Wojciech Gryc

How do you set goals and motivate yourself? How do you feel when you’re not making progress?

According to E. Tory Higgins, people tend to set goals and regulate their progress in one of two ways: either by envisioning an ideal outcome and working towards it, or by avoiding risks that might result in failure or pain.

A simple example here is physical fitness. The first type of person above might envision themselves in a new outfit, completing a long run, or another major achievement. The second type of person will focus on preventing themselves from eating too much, or will force themselves to exercise more. The results could be the same in both scenarios, but the first one has an “ideal” goal, while the second one is more focused on what one “ought” to do.

Higgins labels the first type of person as having a “promotional” attitude and the second type has a “prevention” attitude. These two approaches represent our regulatory focus – how we manage and regulate our goals, emotions, and responses.

This affects how you motivate yourself, how you respond to success and failure, and how you lead or work with others.

Research into Regulatory Focus

A great definition of both types of mindsets and is provided in Higgins’ own writing:

A promotion focus is concerned with advancement, growth, accomplishment. Goals are hopes and aspirations. The strategic inclination is to make progress by approaching matches to the desired end-state. In contrast, a prevention focus is concerned with security, safety, responsibility. Goals are duties and obligations or even necessities. The strategic inclination is to be prudent, precautionary, and avoid mismatches to the desired end state.

In other words, promotional individuals imagine an ideal version of themselves that they are working towards: they envision themselves as a fit athlete, a successful business leader, or a tenured academic, and they work towards that vision.

Prevention-oriented individuals often tell themselves what not to do: they tell themselves they need avoid junk food to lose weight, or to make sure their business does not lose money, or to publish research so they don’t fall behind their peers.

Neither approach is inherently bad and the approach you take might vary based on situation. Some roles, such as being a lawyer or accountant, benefit from individuals who are prevention-focused. In other cases, leadership requires you to build a vision and motivate a team with a vision they can work towards.

It is critical to reflect on how this type of mindset affects your work with others, how you motivate team members, and how you deal with setbacks:

Examples in the Workplace

A few studies show what this actually means in workplace settings.

Leaders sell best when they are promotional. Dana Kanze shows that startup founders pitching in a promotional manner tend to raise significantly more money. Her results also show gender disparities: males tend to be promotional, and female founders are prevention-focused. If you want to motivate people to take a big risk and get excited, being promotional is critical.

Employees see corporate decisions as more fair or reasonable when changes are presented in a way that align with their own regulatory focus. Marta Anna Roczniewska and E. Tory Higgins show that employees process changes to the workplace differently depending on their focus. When changes are presented in a similar way to their own regulatory focus (i.e., a promotional message is used for promotional employees, and prevention messages are used for prevention-focused employees), then people perceive the changes to be fairer and are more likely to agree with them.

What You Can Do

Knowing your own regulatory focus can help you manage yourself. Knowing how your peers tend to behave will help you manage or work with them.

Some questions you should ask yourself for reflection are below:

  1. What is my default regulatory focus?
  2. What situations put me in a promotional mindset? What situations put me in a prevention mindset?
  3. How do my peers tend to regulate themselves?
  4. What could I do to support their predispositions?

Building teams with both types of individuals can be helpful. Sending a rocket to the Moon, or taking a startup public, or discovering a new medicine, requires both vision (i.e., “promotion”) and team members who work consistently, diligently, and predictably (i.e., “prevention”).

This is a fundamentally different approach to thinking about how people motivate themselves, and how you set your own goals. I hope it helps!


A special thanks goes out to John Phillips for introducing me to this work, and JanaLee Cherneski for her feedback and help with structuring this post.

  1. See Promotion and Prevention: Regulatory Focus as a Motivational Principle by E. Tory Higgins.
  2. See Dana Kanze’s TEDx talk.
  3. See Promotion or Prevention Messaging?: A Field Study on What Works When You Still Have to Work by Marta Anna Roczniewska and E. Tory Higgins.