This is the second digression from my trilogy of posts about psychopathology. The first digression focussed on approach/ avoidance/ learning and performance motivations and this one will talk about Higgins’s concept of Promotion, Prevention, Congruence and Discrepancy.  

On the surface the Carver/ Schieir concept of approach/avoidance seem similar to Higgin’s concept of Promotion/ prevention but on closer look wd will find that the concept s are orthogonal.  

To recap, Higgins has based his concepts of promotion and prevention regulatory focus on the basis of his earlier self-discrepancy theory (SDT , different from Reci/ Dyan’s self-determination theory) . As per his SDT, each of us possesses an ‘actual’ self (what we actually are) and two hypothetical selves: one ‘ideal’ self consisting of our desires, hopes and aspirations and another ‘ought’ self consisting of our responsibilities, duties and sense of security.  While ‘ideal’ is what we /others want us to be at-or-best; ‘ought’ is what we/others expect us to do out of our moral sense.  

We thus have two types of self-guides, an ideal self guide and an ought self guide that help us determine how to act.  If we find a discrepancy between either actual self and ideal self; or actual self and ought self; then that perceived /accessible discrepancy lead to feelings of discomfort, similar to what happens in cognitive dissonance (Festinger) , and our acts are directed towards reducing such discrepancies.

In the interim , the discrepancy does not lead to uniform generalized discomfort, but the nature and strength of discomfort or negative emotions differs based on both the accessibility of discrepancy (Acute, chronic, potential etc)   to us and the type of discrepancy (actual-ideal or actual-ought). Specially, it was postulated and validated experimentally, that actual-ideal self discrepancy leads to dejection related emotions( sad, dejected, depressed) while actual-ought self-discrepancy leads to agitation-related emotions (angry, restless, irritable).

Later Higgins broadened the self-discrepancy theory  by focussing on regulatory focus viz promotion where one is considered with approaching presence of positive outcomes and avoiding absence of positive outcomes; and prevention focus where one is driven by approaching absence of negative outcomes and avoiding presence of negative outcomes. Thus, he brought positive emotions also in purview of the regulatory focus theory, by positing that self-congruent goal achievement should lead to positive emotions and extending his logic, those goals that are ideal-actual congruent should lead to different positive emotion cluster (cheerful, passionate) vis-a-vis those that are actual-ought convergent (quiescent, calm ).

Now, there are multiple important concepts floating around – one is the saliency and accessibility of particular self guide.  I classify the different accessibility/ salience levels as  1. acute (momentary) 2. Potential (anticipatory)  3. Chronic (persistent) and 4. Realized (all-time).

The other important concept is the interaction of self-congruency/ self-discrepancy with the guide or regulatory foucs being used viz promotional (ideal) or prevention (ought).

The accessibility or strength of the guides (ideal/ought) and the strength and nature of self-discrepancy/ self-congruence with that guide , will lead to emergence of emotions and emotional states in a person.

With these concepts clarified, one can  bravely unveil the promotion, prevention, discrepancy and congruence matrix and the resulting emotions based on accessibility of the self guides.


Higgins has proposed to use the signal detection theory framework to be used for these emotions/ regulatory focus. Specifically, promotion focus is focussed on ensuring hits even while tolerant of a few false alarms by increasing responding bias and committing errors of commission; prevention focus, on the other hand, is concerned with ensuring correct rejections and living with a few false negatives, and biased towards errors of omission.  To take by way of an example,

If we consider the promotion regulatory focus and consider threats and opportunities, then detecting signal (opportunity/ threat) would be more important than ignoring or letting the signal go unheeded. Thus,


Thus, there would be a bias towards being driven by Fear and Interest in this system compared to being driven by sadness/ cheerfulness.

Thus the important role of anxiety and obsession that let us respond, rather than not respond (action bias)!

 When a similar matrix is made for prevention focus, we’ll get something like:

 Thus, in this system there is bias toward not responding and hence the importance of impulsivity/ delusional thinking that don’t let us focus too much on detecting things as on ensuring that a consistent framework is not threatened.

Please note that the promotion self –discrepant system is equivalent o -ve valence system of RDoC. Also, promotion self-congruent system is equivalent to +ve valence system of RDoC. Similarly, prevention self-discrepant system is equivalent to Arousal system of RDoC.   

In the next post I will try to wind this up and link all of them to the promised BIS/BAS/FFS of gray et al.  And how Craver / Schier and Dweck  Approach/ avoidance/ learning / performance concepts  are orthogonal and iteract with Higgins et al promotion, prevention, congruence and discrepant concepts.

About the Author

Sandeep Gautam

Sandeep Gautam is a software developer and science writer at The Mouse Trap.

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