Harnessing focus for profit or prevention

Focus will help you sell a pension, manage your employees, raise your children and get a second date. If that does not go so well, it will also show you how to dump a suitor.

Uncovering how people focus is the secret, says “Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence,” published by Hudson Street Press.

Written by Heidi Grant Halvorson and E. Tory Higgins from Columbia Business School’s Motivation Science Center in New York, it draws on social psychology and explores how to identify, change and use focus to get the desired results.


Motivation, they write, has two forms: focus on promotion or on prevention. People can either be “focused on what they already have, or on getting even more. Promotion focus is about maximizing gains and avoiding missed opportunities. Prevention focus is about minimizing losses, to keep things working.”

To illustrate these divergent motivations, the authors describe two people who embody the characteristics. Skeptical and cautious, Jon is determined not to make mistakes. Immaculately dressed, he speaks with precision and his work is flawless. Jon is focused on prevention. Meticulous in his projects, he is the person you go to if you want a piece of research.

On the other hand is creative, innovative Ray. Before he met his wife, he would fall in love every two months — the same time it took him to do his laundry. Promotion-focused, he is relentlessly cheery. If Jon sees his glass as half-empty, Ray’s is spilling all over his shirt.

Some cultures, the authors say, have a bias toward being more focused on promotion or prevention. Americans are more promotion-minded, idolizing innovators such as Steve Jobs, the late founder of Apple, and rule-breakers such as the environmental campaigner Erin Brockovich.

On the other hand, east Asian cultures place more importance on prevention. “These are the cultures that gave us Confucius, who praised family loyalty and respect for elders, self-sacrificing Kamikaze pilots and demanding Tiger Moms.”

They even divide bosses into two groups. Larry Ellison, chief executive of Oracle (“When you innovate, you’ve got to be prepared for everyone telling you you’re nuts”) is focused on promotion. And Andrew Grove, former Intel chief executive (“Success breeds complacency... Complacency breeds failure... Only the paranoid survive”) is obviously on the side of prevention.

The authors argue that viewing prospective employees through the prism of prevention/promotion is better than the Myers-Briggs personality test, because that analysis does not predict performance.

Once you understand that the world is divided into prevention and promotion, the authors argue, you know how to become an effective influencer.

Understanding an audience’s motivation helps advertisers, companies and public bodies target their message. Promotion-minded people love to try new restaurants or new iPhones, paint their homes in new colors; prevention-minded people prefer to stay with what they know.

The key, however, is to frame products and messages in a way that fits with consumers’ outlook. For example, by selling a food supplement in a positive way (“Enjoy life! Supranox helps you do that”) or a negative way (“Don’t miss out on enjoying life! Let Supranox be a part of your daily routine”) will appeal to different segments of the population.

It is a persuasive argument, punchily written with lots of case studies. But this book will either appeal or repulse depending on one thing: whether you are someone who believes you can divide the population into two types. On this I have to declare a bias: I don’t.

Emma Jacobs is a columnist for the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.