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Manipulations of regulatory focus

Author: Dr Simon Moss

Overview

Sometimes, individuals are primarily motivated to pursue gains and opportunities, unconcerned with the costs or complication that might unfold. In this state, they strive to pursue their future aspirations instead of their more immediate duties, called a promotion focus. On other occasions, individuals are primarily motivated to prevent losses or minimize costs, unconcerned with their neglect of future goals and aspirations. In this state, they strive to satisfy more immediate duties only, called a prevention focus (Higgins, 1997). This distinction between a promotion and prevention focus emanates from regulatory focus theory.

The regulatory focus of individuals affects an extensive array of behaviors, preferences, and inclinations. For example, when individuals adopt a promotion focus, they often propose more creative solutions, inflate their capacity to control events, trust their intuition, and negotiate effectively. They are also more inspired by messages that focus on potential gains instead of the prevention of losses.

Because of these implications, many researchers attempt to manipulate regulatory focus. They might, for example, prompt individuals to consider potential gains instead of possible losses, to identify aspirations or duties, to complete word completion tasks, or to undertake other exercises.

Gain versus loss focus

A variety of experimental protocols have been developed to manipulate regulatory focus, at least transiently (see also Florack & Scarabis, 2006). In essence, to activate a promotion or prevention focus, researchers can increase the salience of gains or losses. Alternatively, researchers can emphasize needs that relate to nurturance and achievement or safety and protection. Finally, researchers can prime either aspirations or duties.

To illustrate attempts to augment the salience of gains, thereby activating a promotion focus, in a study conducted by Higgins, Shah, and Friedman (1997), some individuals were informed they could earn $1 each time they exceeded some level of performance, with a maximum of $6. In contrast, other individuals were informed they would not lose $1 if they exceeded some level of performance, again potentially earning a maximum of $6 (see also Cropanzano, Paddock, Rupp, Baggerd, & Baldwin, 2008).

As evidence of validity, when a promotion focus was evoked, the achievement of goals tended to evoke cheerful emotions. When a prevention focus was evoked, the achievement of goals tended to elicit contentment instead. These findings are consistent with self discrepancy theory: That is, fulfilled aspirations are assumed to induce cheerfulness, whereas fulfilled duties are assumed to induce contentment.

Aspirations versus duties

To activate a prevention focus, researchers sometimes ask individuals to reflect upon their duties and obligations. For example, Leonardelli, Lakin, and Arkin (2007) instructed participants to "Describe your current duties and obligations. Mention how meeting your obligations can help you avoid and prevent negative outcomes...in life".

To activate a promotion focus, researchers can ask individuals to reflect upon their hopes and aspirations. For example, Leonardelli, Lakin, and Arkin (2007) instructed participants to "Describe your current hopes and aspirations. Mention how achieving these hopes can help you to promote or achieve positive outcomes...in life". On average, in both conditions, participants dedicated about 3 minutes to these essays, and these durations did not differ between the two conditions. Likewise, to activate a prevention focus, Vaughn, Baumann, and Klemann (2008), instructed participants to "List five of their current duties and obligations (at college)". To activate a promotion focus, participants were asked to "List five of their current hopes and aspirations (at college)". The precise instructions vary marginally across studies. For example, in the study conducted by Molden and Higgins (2008), participants were instructed to reflect upon these hopes and aspirations--or duties and obligations--both now and in the past.

When this procedure was utilized, a prevention focus increased the capacity of individuals to recognize words that correspond to self certainty, such as sure or doubtful. In contrast, a promotion focus increased the capacity of individuals to recognize words that correspond to enhancement, such as enhance or improve. This finding is consistent with the proposition that a promotion focus orients attention to gains (Leonardelli, Lakin, & Arkin, 2007).

Word fragment completion primes

To manipulate the regulatory focus of individuals, in a study conducted by Wan, Hong, and Sternthal (2009), four words fragments, such as e-g-r, were presented. The task of participants was to uncover the underlying words. To induce a promotion focus, the answers were related to eagerness: eager, active, growth, and accomplish. To induce a prevention focus, the answers were associated with vigilance: secure, calm, vigilant, safe. For each fragment, one or two letter were missing.

As evidence of validity, if a prevention focus had been evoked, participants were more confident in various decisions if they had considered all the information comprehensively. This finding is consistent with the notion that individuals with a prevention focus strive to minimize errors or shortfalls.

Time

A variety of studies and arguments indicate that individuals are more likely to adopt a promotion focus when they reflect upon future, rather than more immediate, events. For example, according to Ariely and Zakay (2001), individuals become less cognizant of the benefits and merits of events that become closer, not more distant, in time.

Consistent with this proposition, in a study conducted by Eyal, Liberman, Trope, and Walther (2001), participants were asked to justify why they would or would not engage in various behaviors in the near or distant future. Typically, participants referred to the benefits of behaviors they might enact in the distant future and referred to the drawbacks of behaviors they might avoid in the near future.

Multiple tasks

In some instances, individuals need to complete several tasks in a limited time. On some of these tasks, the prospects of gains is emphasized, and thus a promotion focus is activated. On the remaining tasks, the potential of losses might be underscored, activating a prevention focus. For example, employees might be informed that $100 will be added to their wage if they present some speech but $100 will be deducted from their wage if they do not write some report. In these instances, individuals allocate more time to the task that corresponds to a prevention focus (Schmidt & DeShon, 2007).

Slogans and mottos

As Faddegon, Scheepers, and Ellemers (2008) demonstrated, the slogans or mottos of groups, such as a company, can also shape the regulatory focus of individuals. Some slogans, for example, emphasize the prospect of gain and the pursuit of aspirations, such as "Where there's a will, there's a way". These mottos tend to evoke a promotion focus. Other slogans, in contrast, emphasize the prevention of loss and the fulfillment of duty, such as "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure". These mottos tend to evoke a prevention focus.

To assess this possibility, in one study, reported by Faddaegon, Scheepers, and Ellemers (2008), participants were exposed to team mottos that either emphasized the prospect of gains or the prevention of failures. Next, they conducted a recognition task. If participants had been exposed to mottos that emphasized the prospect of gains, they were more likely to contend they had recognized items that had not actually been presented earlier. These mistakes, called errors of commission, are usually exacerbated by a promotion focus. Hence, these slogans seemed to elicit a promotion focus.

In contrast, if participants had been exposed to mottos that emphasized the prevention of losses, they were more likely to contend they did not recognize items that had actually been presented earlier. These mistakes, called errors of omission, are typically amplified by a prevention focus. These slogans, thus, seemed to evoke a prevention focus. Interestingly, if participants did not identify strongly with the team, these team mottos were not as likely to affect their behavior.

Scenarios

Some researchers ask participants to consider or imagine various scenarios, intended to elicit either a promotion focus or a prevention focus. For example, in a study conducted by Wu and Kao (2011), participants were informed the research is intended to examine the decisions of consumers. To elicit a promotion focus, participants read a scenario about a person who is married, active, and confident, as well as willing to meet unfamiliar people and embrace challenges. He then considers three investment alternatives: stocks, mutual funds, and bank savings. To increase profit, despite the risks, he chooses stocks.

To elicit a prevention focus, participants read a scenario about a person who is married and prioritizes his family. He also considers the three investment alternatives--stocks, mutual funds, and bank savings--but does not dare reach the final decision alone. He considers the risks of each alternative to minimize uncertainty and losses. He decides to invest in bank savings to curb the risk.

Next, participants imagined they were the person in this scenario and needed to purchase one of eight brands of crackers. Then, some of these individuals imagined they had consumed these crackers and had to purchase another brand of crackers the next day. Next, they imagined they needed to repeat this purchase over five consecutive days. Other individuals imagined they had to purchase these five packets on one day. Participants then chose which brands they would purchase.

Consistent with the hypotheses, when asked to purchase these crackers over different days, a promotion focus increased the likelihood participants would choose a variety of packets. In contrast, when asked to purchase these crackers on one day, also consistent with hypotheses, a prevention focus increased the likelihood that participants would choose a variety of packets: In this condition, participants choose many packets to prevent the regret they would experience if they did not like any of the brands when they returned home.

Manipulation checks

After regulatory focus is manipulated, some researchers attempt to check the utility of these procedures. Wan, Hong, and Sternthal (2009), for example, asked participants to answer two questions, as a manipulation check. They were asked "To what extent did you focus on avoiding the negative outcome when writing down the academic strategies?" and "To what extent did you focus on achieving the positive outcome when writing down the academic strategies?"--both on a 9 point scale. These two questions reflect a prevention and promotion focus respectively.

Antecedents of regulatory fit

In some studies, regulatory fit, rather then regulatory focus, is manipulated even prior to some other task. In a study conducted by Vaughn, Hesse, Petkova, and Trudeau (2009), participants reported two of their hopes and aspirations or duties and obligations--to activate a promotion or prevention focus respectively. Next, participants specified a few strategies they could apply to make sure everything goes right or to avoid anything that could go wrong in these attempts--to highlight eager or vigilant means. A promotion focus, coupled with eager means, or a prevention focus, coupled with vigilant means, was assumed to instill a sense of fit.

After participants engaged in this task, they read another passage. Regulatory fit increased the extent to which this passage was regarded as persuasive.

Some of the benefits of regulatory fit dissipate if individuals are informed that some other trivial event evoked these feelings (Cesario, Grant, & Higgins, 2004). In the study conducted by Vaughn, Hesse, Petkova, and Trudeau (2009), participants were informed that merely thinking about the right means to attain a goal can elicit these feelings of feeling right. This information diminished the effects of regulatory fit on the subsequent evaluation of some passage.

Antecedents of regulatory focus fulfillment

Many studies manipulate regulatory focus. However, the implications of regulatory focus depend on whether or not the aspirations or duties were fulfilled. For example, when individuals contemplate fulfilled prevention goals, their creativity diminishes, because they already feel content and hence their level of alertness or activation decreases (Baas, De Dreu, & Nijstad, 2011). In contrast, when individuals contemplate prevention goals that were not fulfilled, their creativity improves (Baas, De Dreu, & Nijstad, 2011).

A variety of methods can be utilized to manipulate whether or not the goals were fulfilled. In one study, conducted by Baas, De Dreu, and Nijstad (2011), some participants were asked to write about a situation in which they either successfully or unsuccessfully attained a positive outcome, to induce a fulfilled or unfulfilled promotion focus respectively. Alternatively, some participants were asked to write about a situation in which they either successfully or unsuccessfully avoided a negative outcome, to induce a fulfilled or unfulfilled prevention focus respectively.

Unsuccessful attempts, at either a promotion or prevention focus, enhanced creativity, as measured by the remote associates test. That is, participants could more readily identify a term that three other words, such as envy, golf, and beans, all share--in this instance, green. Presumably, unsuccessful attempts to fulfill a goal may sustain alertness, enhancing creativity (Baas, De Dreu, & Nijstad, 2011). Successful attempts to fulfill a promotion goal also enhanced creativity: The excitement of these achievements fosters confidence, motivating individuals to pursue steeper goals (Baas, De Dreu, & Nijstad, 2011). Successful attempts to fulfill a prevention goal, however, hindered creativity (Baas, De Dreu, & Nijstad, 2011).

In Studies 2 and 3, Baas, De Dreu, and Nijstad (2011) administered another procedure to manipulate whether or not promotion or prevention goals were fulfilled. Participants received a maze. A mouse was trapped inside. Participants could maneuver the mouse with a computer mouse. To induce a promotion focus, the task of participants was to negotiate the maze and to attain a piece of cheese outside. To induce a prevention focus, the task was to negotiate the maze and to avoid an owl that was hovering outside. Nevertheless, to curb fulfillment, for some participants, midway through, the computer froze. Again, a fulfilled prevention focus, in comparison to the other conditions, impaired creativity, as measured by several tasks.

Related topics

Manipulations of eagerness and vigilance: Overview

In general, a promotion focus is associated with eagerness, and a prevention focus is associated with vigilance. Many procedures have been applied to manipulate eagerness and vigilance. For example, to cultivate a sense of eagerness, participants can be asked to either imagine the activities they will undertake in the future to fulfill some goal (e.g., Spiegel, Grant-Pillow, & Higgins, 2003 see also Forster, Higgins, & Idson, 1998). In contrast, to foster vigilance, participants can be instructed to either imagine the problems they will need to counter in the future to realize this goal (Spiegel, Grant-Pillow, & Higgins, 2003). These manipulations, and other rewards structures, have been applied to demonstrate the regulatory fit can enhance motivation and performance on a range of tasks, including anagrams (Forster, Higgins, & Idson, 1998), mathematics problems (Freitas, Liberman, & Higgins, 2002), and every day tasks such as writing letters (Spiegel, Grant-Pillow, & Higgins, 2003).

Other cues affect whether an eager or vigilant means to pursue goals prevails. Cesario and Higgins (2008) showed that nonverbal cues can represent either an eager or a vigilant means. For example, individuals who speak and move rapidly, with their arms apart and leaning forwards, epitomize an eager strategy. Indeed, these individuals are more compelling to anyone who adopts a promotion rather than prevention focus, consistent with the principles of regulatory fit.

In contrast, individuals who speak and move more slowly, with their arms closer together, leaning slightly backwards, epitomize a vigilant strategy. These individuals are more persuasive to anyone who adopts a prevention rather than promotion focus (Cesario & Higgins, 2008).

Manipulations of eagerness and vigilance: Red

Gerend and Sias (2009) showed the color red can promote a vigilance mindset and thus evoke a sense of fit when a prevention focus is adopted. In this study, for example, participants read about the benefits of HPV vaccination--a promotion or gain focus--or the drawbacks of no vaccination--a prevention or loss focus. The loss focus was more likely to evoke intentions to vaccinate, but only if the message was presented in red rather than grey. Presumably, the prevention focus and vigilance associated with the red evoked a sense of fit.

Red is not only associated with a prevention focus in particular but with negative features in general, especially in achievement contexts (Moller, Elliot, & Maier, 2009). These associations might partly emanate from phrases like "see red", red tape", "code red", "red flag", and "red herring", all of which generate negative implications.

To illustrate, in one study, conducted by Moller, Elliot, and Maier (2009), a series of words was presented, , such as inaccurate or triumph. Participants had to decide whether the words relate to failure or success. Participants readily classified words that related to failure if these terms were presented in red instead of green or white. In contrast, they readily classified words that related to success if these terms were presented in green. This pattern was observed even when lightness was controlled.

Nevertheless, red is also associated with other characteristics or orientations that are not related to vigilance. From an evolutionary perspective, red is frequently associated with dominance and aggression, for example (e.g., Cuthill, Hunt, Cleary, & Clark, 1997& Setchell & Wickings, 2005).

Indeed, Hill and Barton (2005) showed that competitors with red attire tend to prevail in combat sports& they argued the red enhances the aggression of these individuals (Barton & Hill, 2005). Rowe, Harris, and Roberts (2005) argued, however, that differences in visibility could explain these results. Hagemann, Strauss, and Leibing (2008), in contrast, challenged both of these propositions. They undertook a study in which judges watched tae kwon do tournaments. All judges watched the same bouts, but the colors were adjusted. In one version, the protective gear of the first and second combatants was red and blue respectively. In another version, these colors were reversed. Judges rated the combatant who wore read more favorably. In other words, biases in the judges could explain the results.

Similarly, as Elliot and Niesta (2008) emphasized, the context might determine the meaning that people attach to red. For example, red might evoke an avoidance orientation in achievement settings but a romantic orientation in social contexts.

Specifically, in contexts that relate to relationships, red is associate with lust, passion, and love. That is, red hearts, red lipstick, and red light districts all epitomize this meaning--a meaning that might have originated from the association between sexuality and the reddening of skin and other body parts, in animals and humans, because of changes in blood flow. Consistent with this possibility, Elliot and Niesta (2008) showed that men perceive females as more attractive if depicted in a photo with a red rather than white, gray, green or blue background. The background did not influence whether or not these women were perceived as kind or intelligent. Similarly, men perceive females in a red, rather than blue, shirt as more sexually attractive.

Determinants of eagerness and vigilance: Personality

Openness to experience, a facet of the five factor model of personality, also increases eagerness. In particular, open individuals enjoy novel, intense, diverse, and complex experiences instead of familiar tasks, routines, and simplicity. These individuals thus tend to experience an eager, rather than vigilant, orientation.

This possibility was vindicated by Vaughn, Baumann, and Klemann (2008). These researchers showed that individuals who reported an elevated level of openness were especially motivated to pursue hopes and aspirations& hence, a promotion focus enhanced motivation in these individuals, presumably representing regulatory fit. In contrast, individuals who reported limited openness were especially motivated to pursue duties and obligations.

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