The Psychology Of Fitness

Mindsets, Body Types and Everything In Between
Is Encouragement Always Beneficial?

Is Encouragement Always Beneficial?

People who are positive all the time really get under my skin.  They’re always saying things such as, “You just need to focus on the positive.”  Although this may sound like good advice (and at times it is), when it comes to working out, following that advice has, on more than one occasion, completely zapped my motivation to workout.  In fact, when people tell me anything good about my physique, and I agree with them (which is rare), I have lost motivation and have subconsciously done things to sabotage my progress.   This article will help to explain why this phenomenon occurs while discussing a couple of things you can do to protect yourself from losing motivation.

What is Regulatory Focus? 

In 1997, E. Tory Higgins released his landmark study on Regulatory Focus1 called Beyond Pleasure and Pain.  In it, he breaks down how although it may seem like we simply move towards pleasure and move away from pain, this is not always the case.  The theory breaks down into two main areas of focus that people use to either move towards their ideals or aspirations called Promotion focus, or do things because they should called Prevention focus.

A couple of weeks ago he and Heidi Grant Halvorson, released a book about the topic called Focus that expands upon these concepts and how each person’s dominant focus can influence or undermine their motivation.

Is Encouragement Always Beneficial

The basic gist behind the book is simple:  The more we can align our language and our mindset with our more dominant focus, the better we will be at creating motivation and subsequent action towards our desired ends.  Before reading any further, I would suggest you go to the book’s website and take the free online test to see what your dominant focus is.

The book explains how we use both of these motivations at different points and in different areas of our lives.

For example, when you’re buying insurance, you’re almost exclusively in a prevention-mindset, and your focus is on preventing loss and thinking about what may go wrong.  On the other hand, if you’re playing the lottery, you’re almost exclusively in the promotion mindset and your focus is on what the possibilities are if you win.  Neither is more “right” than the other and both can be equally motivating, but the language we use, along with the language other people use towards us can either enhance our motivation or deaden it, depending on our dominant motivational style.

The authors state that we all use both types of focus (prevention and promotion) and that depending on the situation, we may be more promotion or prevention focused in that particular area of our lives.  For example, when it comes to work, you may be more promotion-focused and focused on the possibilities of pay increases and job growth.  When it comes to raising your child though you may be more prevention-focused and focused on protecting your new born from falling down the stairs or putting his fingers in the electrical socket.  Despite the use of both types of focus, most people tend to lean towards one dominant style more often than not.  If you’re an eternal optimist, then you most likely are promotion-focused dominant, whereas if you’re a “Debbie Downer” constantly focusing on the negative, you are most likely prevention-focused dominant.  Despite these two extremes, most people fall towards one end of the spectrum.

For example, in general, and in most areas of my life I get excited about the possibilities of what I can achieve if I put some effort into an endeavor and therefore am more promotion focused.  Despite that though, in a couple of specific areas of my life, I am much more prevention-dominant such as when it comes to working out and when it comes to traveling.  Therefore, I don’t travel unless I need to and whenever someone gives me praise on my body, I try to accept it, but I know that if I do it fully, I will be in the midst of losing motivation to work out.

How Regulatory Focus Applies to Working Out

You see, when it comes to praise and encouragement, if you are more prevention-focused, that praise can undermine your motivation.  When you are more prevention-focused, you are more concerned with maintaining the status quo and doing what you feel you should do.  Therefore, with working out, I feel I should work out.  I’m a personal trainer, I like looking good and eating what I want when I want.  Thankfully, I enjoy feeling good and therefore eat healthy most of the time, but if I don’t eat so healthy, I don’t want to fret about the decision and want to be able to enjoy the food guilt-free.  Therefore, I feel like I should work out and am very rarely trying to achieve an “ideal body”.  I know my motivations for working out and I am living my goals when it comes to them.  When someone gives me words of praise, my desire or vigilance to maintain my goals starts to become undermined – why would I continue to work out as hard if I have already achieved my goals?  People with a prevention-focus tend to want something to be vigilant about, something to be slightly off so that they have a reason to maintain their focus and their overall motivation.

On the other hand, I have a friend who loves getting praise for his efforts and it encourages him to work out harder in the gym.  When you give him a compliment about his body, he is much more likely to go to the gym, continually striving towards his ideal body and when you encourage him with words of praise, he feels like he is moving closer to his goal and therefore works harder.

So if when it comes to working out, you are thinking about how great it would be to fit into a bikini on the beach while enjoying your summer, your motivation may be a promotion-mindset when it comes to working out.  On the other hand, if your main motivation for working out is that you don’t want to feel like a “fat slob” the next time you see your ex or some family you haven’t seen in a while, your motivation is probably more prevention-focused.  Both types of motivation may be beneficial to you, at different times, but how things are worded and the words that other people use may motivate you more or less, depending on your promotion or prevention focus.

Fit the Message to Your Focus  

So the question is, now that you know all of this information, how do you use it to your advantage?  Here I will present 2 steps you can take to ensure that you keep your motivation high when it comes to working out:

1 – Determine Your Dominant Workout Focus – If you haven’t done so already, take a few minutes to determine what your more dominant focus is, but instead of thinking about your general attitudes towards life, answer the questions while focusing on your motivations for working out.

2 – Fit the Message to Your Focus – Now that you know your dominant focus when it comes to your work out motivation, try to filter what you hear, read and watch with the right “Motivational Fit.”2  For example, if someone tells me, “Oh, you look like you gained some weight.  I guess it happens to all of us as we age.” I would be highly motivated to work out.  Granted, I would be slightly annoyed, but you better believe that I would be much more motivated than before that comment. On the other hand, if someone said that to someone who was more Promotion-focused, they would probably lose motivation and wonder how that person could be so rude.

Also, when it comes to reading stories, are your more impressed by someone that overcame great odds to achieve health (prevention-focus) or are you more motivated by reading about someone striving for their best (promotion-focus)?  This same concept can be used when it comes to pictures of people with good bodies.  Are you motivated by them because you want to achieve their aesthetics (promotion-focus) or are you motivated because you don’t want someone to be better than you (prevention-focus)?    Use this knowledge to your advantage and start a collection of bookmarks specifically saving things that match your focus.

Bottom Line

Now that you know more about Promotion and Prevention Focus, you can use that knowledge to increase your overall motivation and exercise adherence by fitting how you filter messages to fit your style.

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  1. Higgins ET. Beyond pleasure and pain. Am Psychol. 1997;52(12):1280-300. []
  2. Gallagher KM, Updegraff JA. When ‘fit’ leads to fit, and when ‘fit’ leads to fat: how message framing and intrinsic vs. extrinsic exercise outcomes interact in promoting physical activity. Psychol Health. 2011;26(7):819-34. []

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