Encouraging Promotion and Prevention Behavior

E. Tory Higgins, the Stanley Schachter Professor of Psychology at Columbia University, argues that one of two states tends to dominate the way we think: a promotion focus or a prevention focus. The basic distinction is really to do with when you’re pursuing goals or making decisions. The promotion state is when you think of your goal as something to accomplish, something to aspire to; you think of what you’re trying to do as making gains in your life. Prevention is quite different. When you’re in prevention, you think of your goal as something that will allow you to have safety and security. You think of what you’re doing as something you ought to do rather than what you ideally want to do.

Promotion and prevention are really motivational states, not just personalities. If you want innovation and creativity—and, therefore, want your workers to be in promotion—then it is a good idea to use bonuses as an incentive, because bonuses are about gains. A bonus by definition says, “If you do this and this, then you will gain some extra money, you will get a better financial situation.”

But you don’t want to talk about bonuses if what you care about is safety and reliability. It’s a mistake to tell people, “If you make the plane safer and more reliable, you’ll get a bonus.” That is a terrible thing to do because the bonus puts them in promotion and what you want instead is to put them in prevention. So what you should do instead is say, “We have set aside this money for you—it’s yours. But if you do not make sure that this product is safe, if you do not make sure that it’s reliable, you will lose that money.” Now the message is what they have to do in order not to lose the money. That’s a prevention message and that will help them to care more about safety and security.

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