Regulatory Focus Theory

While previous theories and research have examined the relationship between employees' emotional experience and their attitudes and behaviours at work (George & Brief, 1996), organisational scholars have paid much less attention to the psychological processes that affect the nature and extent of people's emotional experience. Thus Higgins (1997) has argued that the principle of "hedonism" cannot be used to explain the difference in the use of strategies in the behaviour of human beings "to escape pain and to pursue happiness". Higgins (1997) proposed the Regulatory Focus Theory (RFT) as a new explanation of human motivation. Regulatory Focus Theory is specifically concerned with the nature and extent of people's emotional experience and, by extension, can help elucidate their attitudes and behaviours at work.

The psychological theory of regulatory focus (Florack et al., 2013; Higgins, 1997) holds that human motivation is rooted in the approach of pleasure and the avoidance of pain and differentiates a promotion focus from a prevention focus. The former involves the pursuit of goals that are achievement- or advancement-related, characterized by eagerness, whereas the latter focuses on security and protection, characterized by vigilance. According to regulatory fit theory, messages and frames that are presented as gains are more influential under a promotion focus, whereas those presented as losses carry more weight in a prevention focus. For example, research by Lee and Aaker (2004) found that ‘gain frames’ in advertising (“Get energized”) lead to more favorable attitudes when the body of the advertising message is written in promotional terms (e.g. emphasizing the energy benefits of drinking grape juice), whilst ‘loss frames’ (“Don’t miss out on getting energized!”) have a more favorable effect when the main body of the ad focuses on prevention (e.g. stressing the cancer reduction benefits of drinking grape juice).

Regulatory guidance theory, according to Higgins (1997), looks at motivation in a way that allows us to understand the fundamental ways in which we approach a task or goal. Different factors can motivate people in the pursuit of goals, and we self-regulate our methods and processes in the pursuit of our goals. RFT proposes that the motivational force is enhanced when the way people work towards a goal supports their regulatory focus. Achieving a goal in a way that is consistent with a person's regulatory orientation leads to a sense of importance for the event. The impact of the motivation is seen as calculated and this creates a greater sense of commitment to the goal. The more engaged (i.e. involved, busy, fully absorbed) an individual is in an activity, the more intense the motivational force. Commitment is of great importance in achieving and motivating to achieve a goal. A person who is highly committed to a goal will experience a more positive goal and a more negative goal. RFT examines the relationship between a person's motivation and how well they achieve their goal. RFT posits two distinct and independent self-regulatory orientations: prevention and promotion. The theory distinguishes a promotion orientation that focuses on hopes and achievements, also called gains. This focus is more on higher-level gains, such as advancement and achievement. It also distinguishes a prevention orientation that focuses on safety and responsibility, also known as no-loss ( Dholakia, Gopinath, Bagozzi & Nataraajan 2006). This goal emphasises safety by following guidelines and rules. An individual's regulatory orientation is not necessarily fixed. Although individuals have chronic promotion or prevention tendencies, these preferences may not be valid in all situations. In addition, a specific regulatory orientation may be induced. According to Higgins, the promotional orientation is the result of a strong ideal, a 'take it or leave it' situation and growth needs; the preventive orientation is the result of intense obligations, a 'take it or leave it' situation and security needs.

Figure 1 will quickly show the main differences between prevention-oriented and promotion-oriented people.


Figure 1 : A summary of the major differences between prevention and promotion orientation

Higgins (1997, 1998) holds that chronic regulatory focus is a stable tendency of self-regulation influenced by parents’ parenting style in the process of their growth. Parents who paid more attention on the development of children’s growth needs tend to cultivate children’s initiative and autonomy, then promotion focus formed. Meanwhile parents who paid more attention on the protection of their children from harm incline to mode a higher sense of safety and responsibility, then prevention focus formed.

As to the forming of situational regulatory focus, situational inducements that emphasize the need for growth, the realization of the ideal and the potential benefits are more likely to induce promotion regulatory focus; situational inducements that emphasize safety needs, performance obligations and potential losses are more likely to induce prevention regulatory focus (Higgins, 1997, 1998).

E. Tory Higgins (1997) uses this example: there is student A and student B, and they both have a common goal of making an A in a class they are both taking at the university. Student A uses a promotion-oriented orientation that directs them toward achieving their goal and moving forward, growing, and achieving in life. This would lead Student A to view the goal as an ideal that satisfies their need for fulfillment. Student B uses a prevention orientation where the goal is something that should be achieved because it meets their need for safety, protection, and prevention of negative outcomes. Student A uses an avid approach where they read additional material to get their goal from an A. Student B uses a vigilant approach where they become more detail oriented and pay close attention to completing all course requirements and Figure 2 illustrates that.


Figure 2 : Two ways to achieve a goal (Higgins 1997)

In one paper written by WooJin Kim, Yuhosua Ryoo, SoYoung Lee & Jung Ah Lee in the Journal of Advertising, the authors examine the effect of regulatory focus and privacy concerns on consumer responses to highly personalized chatbot advertising. Results from two experimental studies indicate that consumers who are primarily promotionally focused are more receptive and respond more favorably to highly personalized chatbot advertising because they are more open to the benefits they may derive from the disclosure of personal information. In contrast, consumers who are primarily prevention-oriented are more attentive to the risks involved and feel unfavorable about highly personalized chatbot advertising. In addition, consumers who are highly concerned about privacy disdain highly personalized ads, regardless of their regulatory focus. Risk-benefit perceptions are shown to mediate the interactions between ad personalization, regulatory orientation, and privacy concerns.

In conclusion, Higgins (1997) supports the idea that self-regulation is influenced from birth for each individual according to the style of each parent. But Higgins (1997, 1998) also suggests that there is a situational regulatory orientation for each individual, meaning that the promotion or prevention orientation of individuals is not stable and can adapt/change according to each situation. There may also be situational incentives from groups of people, from our relatives, from our bosses, etc., which may influence or even change the way we perform and see things and the goals we want to achieve and the way we get there. In summary, regulatory focus can be affected by the individual's history of self-regulation and can also be affected by the current situation or task; the former is a long-term personality trait, while the latter manifests itself as a temporary motivational orientation (Higgins, 1997).



Florack, A., Keller, J., & Palcu, J. (2013). Regulatory focus in economic contexts. Journal of Economic Psychology, 38, 127–137.

Higgins, E. T. (1997). Promotion and prevention: Regulatory focus as a motivational principle. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.). Advances in Experimental Psychology (Vol. 30, pp. 1–46). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Higgins, E. T. (1998). Promotion and Prevention: Regulatory Focus as a Motivational Principle. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 30, 1-46.

Lee, A. Y., & Aaker, J. L. (2004). Bringing the frame into focus: The influence of regulatory fit on processing fluency and persuasion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 205-218.

Brockner, J., & Higgins, E. T. (2001). Regulatory Focus Theory: Implications for the Study of Emotions at Work. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 86, 35-66.

Dholakia, U. M., Gopinath, M., Bagozzi, R. P., & Nataraajan, R. (2006). The Role of Regulatory Focus in the Experience and Self-Control of Desire for Temptations. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 16, 163-175.

Gray, J. A. (1990). Brain Systems That Mediate Both Emotion and Cognition. Cognition & Emotion, 4, 269-288.

Sengupta, J., & Zhou, R. (2007). Understanding Impulsive Eaters’ Choice Behaviors: The Motivational Influences of Regulatory Focus. Journal of Marketing Research, 44, 297-308.