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Book Review: Focus by Heidi Grant Halvorson and E. Tory Higgens

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A prospective customer walks into an auto showroom. You want to get him to buy a car.

You’re on the school board and you need to convince taxpayers that more money is needed for early childhood education.

With the economy in bad shape, you need to get your staff to buy into a downsized reorganization plan for your company.

These are the kinds of problems that get answers in Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence by social psychologists Heidi Grant Halvorson and E. Tory Higgens. Based on research conducted primarily at the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University, they explain how people can be motivated or, as the more cynical reader might be inclined to put it, manipulated to act as you would like them to in a variety of situations.

Essentially, for the purposes of motivation, the authors postulate that people can be divided into two categories. There are those who focus on opportunity and reward. These are people to who are driven to try all sorts of new things in their desire to progress. Then there are those who focus on what they have, and are more concerned with keeping that safe than they are in risking what they perceive as good for the sake of something better. In the terminology of Halvorseon and Higgens the first group is “promotion focused,” the second “prevention focused.”

Promotion focused people will be motivated by appeals to possible rewards for action; prevention focused, by appeals to the dire consequences that may arise from inaction. If I want a promotion focused person to buy my toothpaste, I might explain how impressed the young ladies would be with his gleaming white teeth. If I was targeting a prevention focused young man, I would talk about avoiding cavities.

Understanding a person’s focus can help parents raise their children, help teachers motivate their students, and help employers make personnel decisions. Promotion focused people tend to be more adventurous, less satisfied with the status quo and more willing to try new things. They are the kinds of people you might want to hire for positions calling for creative thinking. Prevention focused people tend to be more careful and meticulous. They function well in jobs that demand attention to detail.

It all sounds fairly reasonable, and the authors are careful to cite experimental studies to back up their conclusions, but the idea that all of humanity — men and women, children and adults, all ethnicities — can be neatly divided into two categories seems just a tad reductive. At least I, for one, would like to think so. This kind of black and white analysis seems too simplistic, better 49 or 50 shades of grey. The whole exercise comes very close to stereotyping, a practice they seem to reject on the one hand while at the same time suggesting that Asians tend to be preventive focused, as opposed to promotion focused Westerners. Certainly, they recognize that these qualities are manifested in differing degrees. I could only suggest that the point be made more emphatically.

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