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Sandeep Gautam
Sandeep Gautam

Promoting Flow

Promotion, self-regultory focus and flow lead to joy

I blogged previously about the work of E Tory Higgins on self-regulatory focus. I recently read the book, Focus: use different ways of seeing the world for success and influence by Higgins and Heidi Grant Halvorson and was reminded of what an important construct this self-regulatory focus is and how it can be applied productively to almost any sphere in life, by say, crafting your messages to influence as per regulatory ‘fit.’

To recap, any person can approach any task with two orthogonal angles: one may either be focused on not missing on opportunities and have an eager frame of mind; or one may be focused on not making mistakes and have a cautious/ vigilant frame of mind. The former is called a promotion focus while the latter is called a prevention focus. Those having a promotion focus may make more errors of commission (in their eagerness to act) while those with a prevention focus may make more errors of omission (by their cautionary non-acting).

It’s possible for people to have a predominantly promotion or prevention focus; it’s also possible to induce promotion or prevention focus by using appropriate task demands and appropriate framing effects.

Those with a promotion focus experience positive cheerfulness, emotions like joy, energy and enthusiasm upon doing well on a task; and feel dejection, emotions like sadness and depression when not doing well. On the other hand, when prevention focus people are doing a task that has a likelihood of failure, they experience high strung emotions like anxiety and fear; if the task is successfully accomplished they experience relief or quiescence-related emotions like contentment.

It’s also instructive to remind ourselves that some emotions are on ends of continuum and are hypothesized to be orthogonal to each other. Thus, dejection-related emotions like sadness are often contrasted with cheerfulness-related emotions like joy and people can be on any point on this continuum. In contrast, anxiety-related emotions like fear are contrasted with self-assurance related emotions like confidence/ contentment and again one can be at any point on the continuum. And it is hypothesized that sadness-joy dimension is orthogonal to fear-confidence dimension.

It’s apparent from the above that promotion-oriented people are more likely to feel sadness-joy family of emotions; while prevention oriented people are more likely to feel fear-confidence family of emotions most of the time.

Higgins proposes an elaborate theory of how these emotions are generated. It is in terms of the discrepancy or congruency of the ‘ideal’ or ‘ought’ self-guide with the actual self. Please see my earlier blogs for more on this.

Slightly unrelated to this, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, has proposed an influential theory of ‘flow,’ whereby, one is in a state of flow when task difficulty is matched to skills or competence required to do the task. If the task difficulty or challenge matches the skill level then flow occurs; if not then multiple other states can occur. In flow, one feels joy-like emotions.

'Challenge vs skill' by Oliverbeatson /Wikimedia
Source: 'Challenge vs skill' by Oliverbeatson /Wikimedia

Specifically, flow occurs only when one is just beyond one’s comfort zone and stretching oneself and both the skill level and difficulty is high; otherwise if the task is too dumb and the skills are also rudimentary, apathy sets in and the emotions experienced are the likes of sadness. If on the other hand, task difficulty is too high and skills are grossly inadequate, anxiety and related emotions kick in; similarly, when skills are superior but task is trivial, relaxation or confident states are more likely.

Again, one can readily see the orthogonal dimensions and mechanisms of sadness-joy and fear-confidence as in the above description and accompanying figure of flow. Which leads one to speculate, is one set of emotions worth more to strive for than the other?

Mihaly clearly prefers flow and won’t mind, in my opinion, the sadness and apathy related downsides that go with being that type of a person. Higgins and Heidi, on the other hand, are unequivocal about the fact that no regulatory focus is better than the other- to them there is merit in both having promotion and prevention-focused people on the team.

What do I think? Well, I may be biased here, as I myself am heavily promotion focused, but I think having a promotion focus is generally good for many reasons—not least being for health, longevity etc. (Did I tell you that promotion focus leads to optimism and optimism has many health benefits?)

I even believe that promotion focus is a result of secure attachment and the careful parenting that goes with it and prevention focus arises from insecure attachment (but that is a blog for another day) and thus people with promotion focus enjoy all the benefits of having a secure attachment like being more exploratory, and a creative nature.

How might the flow and regulatory focus be related at the task and at the individual level? One can hypothesize that when one is doing well on a difficult task, but is also learning or developing skills from it, one enjoys the task and is therefore in promotion focus (looking for opportunities as per the broaden and build theory of Barbara Frederickson). Also, because one is in promotion focus and on lookout for opportunities to learn new stuff/hone existing skills, he takes on tasks just beyond the comfort zone and experiences flow. Thus, there is a virtuous circle between ‘flow,’ positive emotion of joy and promotion focus.

One can also hypothesize that when the task is really difficult and one is not doing well on the task and one’s skills are grossly mismatched, one feels anxiety and the focus shifts and narrows down to avoiding a failure or mistake. Just completing the task is enough—any thoughts of excellence are off limits. Also once you are focused on not making mistakes, like the proverbial bear you are not supposed to think of, you end up making more mistakes and the anxiety feeds on itself. Each mistake further focuses one on performance rather than learning and hence does not lead to building up of skills—as a result one remains in the anxiety zone.

Similar arguments can be extended to the other two emotions—sadness/apathy and confidence/contentment.

I believe this is an interesting area of convergence and future research should empirically try to validate whether promotion focus and flow experiences (and also sadness/apathy) go together; and similarly whether prevention focused people are more likely to be in an Anxiety/Relaxation zone. I’ll not be surprised if that turns out to be the case and then I just wish that more people would parent more securely attached, and thus more promotion oriented/flow-experiencing children.

About the Author
Sandeep Gautam

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

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