Regulatory Focus and Policy Preferences

Regulatory focus is one of the more intriguing motivational constructs found in psychology literature. The idea is that people tend to be motivated either by the desire to maintain security, fulfill their responsibilities, and avoid negative outcomes (“prevention-focus”), or by the desire to achieve positive outcomes and avoid missed opportunities (“promotion-focus”).  These constructs are commonly found in education research relating to study strategies, goal pursuit, and information processing, but two recent papers examine how regulatory focus affects a person’s policy preferences.

In the first paper Gale Lucas and Dan Molden looked at how regulatory focus influences our preferences for various types of government intervention.

Two studies examined how chronic concerns with fundamental needs for security (i.e., prevention) and growth (i.e., promotion) relate to public policy attitudes. In samples of both college students and nationally representative US households and across a variety of policy areas, stronger prevention concerns predicted support for government intervention to maintain public and personal safety, whereas stronger promotion concerns predicted support for government intervention to ensure opportunities for growth and enrichment.

Their findings are noteworthy because they remind us there are psychological factors driving our political preferences that don’t strictly break down along the red-blue barrier. Both Democrats and Republicans will at times claim to be the parties of “safety” or “growth.”

In the second study Jennifer Bolder and Tory Higgins examined how regulatory focus affects our propensity to make a “risky” or “conservative” choice about economic reform:

Two studies examined the impact of self-reported use of promotion-related (i.e., eagerness) and prevention-related (i.e., vigilance) strategies when making “risky” or “conservative” decisions about economic reform under good, average, or poor economic conditions. Consistent with regulatory focus theory (Higgins, 1997, 1998, 2000), in both studies strategic vigilance was associated with making a conservative choice, whereas strategic eagerness was associated with making a risky choice.

Once again, when viewed through the lens of regulatory focus, preferences seem to have little relation to ideology. “Conservative” economic decisions could be either left-leaning (don’t cut spending in a reccession) or right-leaning (don’t raise taxes in a recession).  Similalry, “risky” decisions can be left-leaning (single-payer healthcare) or right-leaning (abolish corporate income tax).


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