Regulatory Focus Theory

Regulatory Focus Theory. Psychology Fanatic article header image

A basic concept in psychological and philosophical thought is the hedonic principle. Basically, the hedonic principle is the foundational concept that humans are motivated to enhance pleasure and avoid pain. In psychology, we are familiar with this concept from the early writings of Sigmund Freud and his emphasis on the pleasure principle. However, pleasure seeking and pain avoiding precedes Freud by thousands of years, reaching back to early Greek philosophy (Aristotle, Plato, etc…). More recently, psychologists examined the hedonic principle, examining individual differences. E. Tory Higgins proposed the regulatory focus theory to identify personality differences in the directional use motivational energy derived from the hedonic principle.

The hedonic principle suggests that feeling affects push action to satisfy goals to obtain pleasure and avoid pain. Feeling affects translated into ‘positive emotions’ such as joy, anticipation, and happiness have a powerful impact on behavior. We seek behaviors and environments that enhance these emotions. The same is true for ‘negative emotions.’ Negative affect (the feelings translated into emotions such as fear, anger, and sadness) also drive a host of behaviors. We know that feeling affects, while providing automatic internal guidance system, may also mislead, pushing for immediate gratification of desires that destroy futures.

Emotional Regulation and Regulatory Focus Theory

We need to be more future minded. We do this through regulating the impulses associated with the hedonic principle. In psychology, we refer to the cognitive process of imagining ourselves in the future and the impact of a variety of behaviors as episodic foresight.

Regulatory focus theory describes individual paths to self-regulation. Basically, the theory describes our process of bringing hedonic impulses into alignment with one’s standards and goals. Higgins explains that regulatory focus “underlies the hedonic principle but differs radically in its motivational consequences” (Higgins, 1997). Regulatory focus provides a relatively novel explanation for our approach-avoidance behaviors, highlighting on personality differences in applying hedonic impulses to our behaviors.

Higgins wrote in his presentation of the new theory that “regulatory focus is concerned with how people approach pleasure and avoid pain in different ways.” He continues in his introduction “it implies that differences in performance, emotions, decision making, and so on could occur as an function of regulatory focus independent of the hedonic principle per se” (1997).

Key Definition:

Regulatory Focus Theory is a theory developed by E. Tory Higgins that proposes that individuals differ in basic priorities for regulating emotion. He suggests that individuals are either promotion focused with an emphasis on growth, attaining desired outcomes, and realizing ambitions, or prevention focused with an emphasis on safety and security, avoiding undesirable outcomes, and fulfilling one’s responsibilities.

Two Fundamental Needs

Higgin’s theory revolves around two primary human needs. These needs are security needs and growth needs. We see these two needs repeatedly in psychological literature. Abraham Maslow lists them on his basic needs pyramid. Attachment theory refers to both security and growth in relation to each other. In John Bowlby’s conception of a secure base, the child only explores (growth needs) when mother provides a secure place of retreat (security needs).

However, we don’t universally seek fulfillment of these two distinct needs the same way. We have different sensitivities, prioritizing safety and growth according to individual standards and characteristics. Perhaps, underlying primal beliefs contribute to these basic differences.

Desired End-States and Undesired End States

Higgins proposes that some individuals actively seek desired end states. They envision who they want to be and work to achieve the ideal self. In psychology, this is also referred to as possible self. These individuals prioritize growth. Others have an end goal to avoid undesirable end states. Higgins refers to this as the ought self. Perhaps, Higgins ought self represents many shadows of Sigmund Freud’s ego ideal or super ego. They fear doing something wrong and the associated rejection.

Higgins further describes the ideal and ought selves. He wrote, “hopes, wishes, and aspirations represented in ideal self-guides function like maximal goals.” In contrast, he wrote that “the duties, obligations, and responsibilities represented in the ought self-guides function more like minimal goals” (1998).

Two Primary Focuses

Growth related priorities is known as promotion focus. Security related priorities is known as prevention focus. According to regulatory focus theory, we prioritize behaviors around the two poles of approach and avoidance. However, the manner and weight we give to seeking opportunity or protecting against threats differ between people. We may adopt a promotion focus (a focus on growth, attaining desired outcomes, and realizing ambitions), or a prevention focus (a focus on safety and security, avoiding undesirable outcomes, and fulfilling one’s responsibilities).

Example of Promotion and Prevention Focuses

For example, after a glorious week in Boston, visiting historical and educational landmarks, my wife and I began our voyage home. In the Seattle airport, we had a plane transfer that required moving from one terminal to another. A small airport subway system connects the terminals. Our particular transfer required taking the subway from one terminal to the main terminal, walking across the main terminal and catching a second train to a third terminal.

We arrived at the station just as a station just as the train arrived, I felt hurried and anxious, pulling my wife to jump on the train before it left. My wife, worried that it may be the wrong train, the resisted my hurried impulse to jump on the train. She thoroughly read the posted signs before any boarding decision to avoid getting on the wrong train. In this instance, I had a promotion focus (hurry, don’t miss the train) while she exhibited a prevention focus (careful don’t get on the wrong train).

Same situation. Same goal. Different focus. In general, neither focus is inherently wrong. They both provide benefits. However, when weighed against specific situations one focus may be better than the other. Sometimes jumping on an opportunity may change our lives for the better. Other times the impulsive jump to action may be quite foolish. Overly security focused approaches often miss fortuitous opportunities. The train leaves the station before you can read the sign. Prevention and promotion focuses are primary components of regulatory focus theory.

Promotion Focus

Promotion focused individuals tend to seek success, implement risky tactics, and eagerly pursue goals. Hence, they focus on positive signals for opportunities. Yen, Chao, and Lin describe “People in promotion focus are more sensitive to positive outcomes, have stronger nurturance needs, care more about their aspirations and accomplishments, pay more attention to the results of gain/non-gain, utilize approach as a strategic strategy…” (2011). They possess many of the characteristics described as an opportunity mindset. However, promotion focused individuals may also be impulsive, sometimes acting without due caution.

Prevention Focus

Prevention focused individuals tend to avoid failure, implement conservative tactics, and vigilantly and carefully pursue goals. Individual holding a prevention focus “tend to be complacent and conservative, and always pay more attention to ‘duty’ and ‘responsibility,’ care for ‘required’ and ‘safety’ (Cui & Ye, 2017). The danger of over-reliance on security needs is stagnation.

Complexity and Regulatory Focus Theory

As most categories in psychology, we must measure personal characteristics on a continuum. We are not one or the other; either promotion focused or prevention focused. We are a mixture of both. Perhaps, we may approach some areas of life with more promotion focus and other areas with a more preventative mindset. For example, a person may be more opportunity focused at work while more security focused in relationships. Situations intertwine with personality tendencies motivating our response.

Cui and Ye explain that “the nature of regulatory focus is defined as chronic and situational.” They continue, “chronic regulatory focus is a kind of personality tendency gradually formed in the process of growth.” This is a long-term regulatory focus that we associate with individual personality. “Situational regulatory focus,” they explain, “is a kind of personality tendency induced by specific situational and task fram information” (2017).

Some research suggests that we may utilize a healthy blend of opportunity seeking and prevention techniques for major decisions, however, when information load is high, taxing our processing capacity, we may default or more characteristic focus priority (Yoon, Sarial-Abi, & Gürhan-Canli, 2012). This is in line with others theories such as emotional overload and ego depletion. Under heavy stress, our bodies shift, selectively processing information that best fit our preconceived beliefs.

How Does a Regulatory Focus Form?

We are born with certain sensitivities. Some children our more sensitive to environmental stimuli than others. These biological givens set in motion a series of events that makes up the child’s life. In epigenetics, the science shows how environments work together with biological hardwiring to activate some genetic propensities. Like most personality differences, nature and nurture work together to form the regulatory focus of a child during life development.

Higgins taught that parenting style strongly influences the development of a child’s chronic regulatory focus style. “parents who paid more attention on the children’s growth needs tend to cultivate children’s initiative and autonomy” (Cui & Ye, 2017) These children grow to prioritize growth related stimuli, developing a promotion focus view of life. In contrast, “parents who paid more attention on the protection of their children from harm” tend to cultivate personalities that seek safety. They form a prevention focus regulatory style (2017)

Regulatory Focus and Personality Type

An individual’s regulatory focus strategy matches well with the different personality types. Extraversion and openness correlates with promotion focus. Research correlates Agreeableness and neuroticism with prevention focus (2017).

A Few Closing Words by Psychology Fanatic.

Higgins’ regulatory focus theory provides insightful dialogue to underlying motivational differences of individuals. In our positive psychology atmosphere, we repeatedly laud the benefits of promotion focus. Sometimes, we should tame these urges to do with a little prevention focused attention. However, some individuals certainly need a healthy shot of promotion focus serum to motivate energy to get off the computer and promote growth by doing something novel.

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Cui, Wenlong; Ye, Maolin (2017). An Introduction of Regulatory Focus Theory and Its Recently Related Researches. Psychology,

Higgins, E. Tory (1997). Beyond Pleasure and Pain. Columbia University. American Psychologist.

Higgins, E. Tory (1998). Promotion and Prevention: Regulatory Focus as a Motivational Principle. In M.P. Zanna (ed.) Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (VOL. 30, pp 1-46).

Yen, C., Chao, S., & Lin, C. (2011). Field Testing of Regulatory Focus Theory. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 41(6),

Yoon, Y., Sarial-Abi, G., & Gürhan-Canli, Z. (2012). Effect of Regulatory Focus on Selective Information Processing. Journal of Consumer Research, 39(1), 93-110.

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