Prevention Focus: A Motivational Strategy That’s Often Overlooked

Todd Brison

You want success. You want money. You want fame. Those are wonderful motivators. However, when was the last time you took a moment to focus on what you don’t want?

I remembered how powerful this unusual tactic can be after a recent call with a friend. We’d been talking for nearly an hour about her entrepreneurial strategy — numbers and metrics and project planning. Then, out of nowhere, she said this: “My dad scares me.”

Where did that come from? This was supposed to be a proactive call. I had been trying to get her to remember the bright sides of what she’d done with her business over the last two months. I wanted to stay positive. Nevertheless, I stayed quiet as she explained.

Her dad was a lot like her. He grew up precocious and entrepreneurial. Everyone knew he’d be going places. The “but” is this: he never made it over the mountain. He never crossed any significant financial threshold. He never rose to the heights expected.

The rest of the story, and the real source of my friend’s fearful phone call, came spilling out. Her father stopped trying. He now suffers constant anxiety attacks. He feels trapped in a marriage that makes him very unhappy. He is counting down the days until retirement.

“He’s just… broken. I don’t want to be broken.”

When we moved the conversation back to business a few minutes later, the tone of our conversation radically changed. Talk of money and goals at the beginning of our conversation didn’t do much, but the moment my friend visualized what she didn’t want to be, she got her fire back. After agreeing on what steps she would take next, we both rushed away to other appointments. An hour later, she’d already started implementing the possible solutions.

It was a good reminder: a negative influence can be even more powerful than a positive one.

This is a counterculture idea. The pursuit of success is usually discussed today through the lens of something called a “promotion-focused” point of view. Your news feed is splattered with the “must-do” habits of Warren Buffet, Jeff Bezos, and Bill Gates for this reason. You see what these people have, and you want to “promote” yourself to that level.

However, according to researchers at the University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo, there’s another angle of motivation: prevention focus. Meaning, a vision of the nightmares, of what could come to pass. Here’s what the authors said in their research:

“Negative role models can inspire one by illustrating a feared, to-be-avoided self, pointing to possible future disasters, and highlighting mistakes that must be avoided so as to prevent them.”

This is an interesting finding, but the experiments quickly revealed it isn’t the full story. As powerful as negative role models might be, they don’t always work.

Sometimes, participants in the study weren’t motivated whatsoever when presented with a negative role model. Why? Because they found the negative figure unrelated. They couldn’t see it as a real possibility for them. There is, however, one shift in the negative role model that made a real difference:

“When [the participants] were forced to draw parallels between themselves and the other and consider the model as a possible future self were they motivated to avoid this outcome.”
(emphasis added)

No wonder my friend was so shaken. When she looked at her father, she didn’t see a poor, hopeless sap who got unlucky. She saw a possible future for herself: complete with the same hair color, chin dimple, and offset ears.

Maybe you don’t need another poster of your idol on the wall to get motivated. Maybe you only need to imagine your father, broken and defeated by life. Maybe you need to see your unfulfilled potential in the flesh. Simply, maybe instead of listening to another motivational speech, you need to tap into your prevention focus in order to spur you to greater heights.

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