The Two Types of Motivational Focus

Motivational focus affects how an individual approaches life’s challenges and demands.

Promotion-focused people see their goals as creating a path to gain or advancement and concentrate on the rewards that will accrue when they achieve them.

They are eager and they play to win.  You’ll recognize promotion-focused people as those who are comfortable taking chances, who like to work quickly, who dream big and think creatively.  But, they may be prone to error, less likely to think things through, and have no plan B if things go wrong.  That’s a price they are willing to pay, because, for the promotion-focused, the worst thing is a chance not taken, a reward unearned, a failure to advance.

The promotion-focused are engaged by inspirational role models.  Maybe a high-performing salesperson, a uniquely effective team leader or a great motivational speaker.

Prevention-focused people, in contrast, see their goals as responsibilities, and they concentrate on staying safe.

They worry about what might go wrong if they don’t work hard enough or aren’t careful enough.  They are vigilant and play to not lose, to hang on to what they have, to maintain the status quo.  They are often more risk-averse, but their work is also more thorough, accurate, and carefully considered.  To succeed, they work slowly and meticulously.  They aren’t usually the most creative thinkers, but they may have excellent analytical and problem-solving skills.

The prevention-focused are engaged by cautionary tales, perhaps about someone’s path they shouldn’t follow.

While the promotion-minded generate lots of ideas, good and bad, it often takes someone prevention-minded to tell the difference between the two.

Creating Motivational Fit with a Message

It’s not just people who have different motivational focus, products, activities, and ideas can have focus too.

Some are obvious: seat belts, home security systems, and health screens are essentially about avoiding loss (prevention), while holiday homes, lottery tickets, and training courses to land your dream job are about potential gains (promotion).  Others can be either promotion or prevention-focused, depending on how you talk about them.  When toothpaste is about a “whiter smile,” it’s a promotion product.  But when it’s about “avoiding cavities,” it’s all prevention.

You can more effectively market something if you tailor your message to fit the motivational focus of the product or the audience for which you’re aiming.

Combining Focus and Fit – “It Feels Right”

Two sources of motivational fit may be:

  1. the fit between the focus and the delivery within the message itself;
  2. the fit between a person’s own dominant focus and the focus/delivery of the message.

The more sources of fit you can create, the more persuasive your message.


With acknowledgement to the work of Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D. and Jonathan Halvorson, Ph.D