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Persuade Them How They Want to be Persuaded: Regulatory Fit

There are two kinds of arguments I could make for eating more fruits and vegetables. One is that the nutrients in those foods promotes brain function, elevates mood, and boosts energy. The other type of argument is that eating fruits and vegetables protects the body from illness and environmental hazards.

fruits-155616_640The key difference between those two types of arguments is that the first one is focused on the benefits that you would want whereas the other focuses on the harms that you would want to avoid. So which is better? If you’re a public health advocate, which kind of message would you choose to persuade people to adopt healthier eating patterns?

Unfortunately, it may not be an easy either/or decision. There’s a concept in social psychology called regulatory fit, which says that the effectiveness of either of those persuasive arguments depends on the recipient’s “motivational orientation.”

The Difference Between “Promotion” and “Prevention”

Let’s start by oversimplifying the human experience and separating people into categories, according to regulatory focus theory.[1]Oh, you noticed I was being snarky? Well it’s just that it’s so easy to think in categories, and this is just one example. Of course everything is a continuum, and even when the research actually does acknowledge it, it’s still simpler to present dichotomies. So you’ll forgive me and let me move on? Some people are “promotion focused” and some people are “prevention focused.” This distinction goes back to our fundamental motivations. On the one hand, we’re motivated to seek out good things, but we’re also motivated to avoid bad things. It’s the perpetually exhausting ebb and flow of human experience.

But some people are more focused on one of those goals than the other.[2]Oop… another caveat. While it’s true that some people are chronically more promotion or prevention focused, at any given moment, anyone can be especially focused on one goal or the other. Some of the persuasion research has considered these cases, but for simplicity, we’ll just talk about these as personality traits. Promotion focused people are looking at their hopes and dreams, looking for opportunities to grow. Prevention focused people are instead concerned with safety and security, making sure nothing poses too much of a threat.

Regulatory Fit and How We Achieve Our Goals

Okay, so there are these two general goals we can be focused on, and in addition to focusing on one goal or the other, these two goals have their own preferred method of getting accomplished. People who are more promotion focused prefer to achieve those goals using “eager methods,” which just means they prefer actively looking for new opportunities to secure positive benefits. People who are more prevention focused, however, prefer to achieve those goals using “vigilant methods,” which just means they prefer being on the lookout for potential problems that should be avoided.

According to regulatory fit, people are especially content when they get to pursue their preferred goals using their preferred methods. In other words, promotion focused people feel more zen when they get to use “eager” behaviors and prevention focused people feel more zen when they get to use “vigilant” behaviors.

Applying this to the Psychology of Persuasion

At this point, you might be one step ahead of me. When it comes to persuasion and using either eager arguments (“fruits boost your energy”) vs. vigilant arguments (“fruits prevent illness”), you might be able to guess who would be more persuaded by each type of message. A key prediction from regulatory fit is that when a person gets to do something using his or her preferred method, everything feels right, which can make the persuasive message all the more successful.

newspaperIn an early demonstration of this, Joseph Cesario and his colleagues ran a persuasion experiment. They were trying to convince people that a new after-school program was a good idea for elementary and high school students. They came up with two versions of the persuasive essay. The first version was the “eager” version, and it emphasized the benefits that would come from adopting the new program. The second version was the “vigilant version,” which emphasized the problems that could be avoided by adopting the new program.

Just like regulatory fit would expect, promotion focused people were more convinced by the eager version than the vigilant version, and prevention focused people were more convinced by the vigilant version than the eager version.

A Sneakier Way to Create Regulatory Fit

Although the previous study raises interesting possibilities about persuasion, it inspires a new question: could regulatory fit happen without changing the content of the message at all?

Joseph Cesario and E. Tory Higgins decided to find out. They wanted to see whether an advocate’s nonverbal behavior could signal eager persuasive style or vigilant persuasive style. Specifically, a speaker can covey eagerness by leaning forward, talking quickly, and making big, open gestures. A speaker can convey vigilance, however, by making calculated gestures and speaking more slowly.

In their study, participants watched a video of a speaker who delivered a persuasive speech about the after-school program, using either of the two kinds of nonverbal behaviors. When the researchers measured people’s opinions of the program after they saw the video, you can guess what the results were.

The promotion focused people were more persuaded by the “eager gestures” video than the “vigilant gestures” video whereas the prevention focused people showed just the opposite pattern.

Know Your Audience

So to answer our question from the beginning, “which type of arguments are more persuasive?,” we would say: both. Both emphasizing the direct benefits of eating healthy and the negative things you can avoid by eating healthy can be persuasive, but it depends on who’s listening.

The research on regulatory fit in persuasion underscores the importance of knowing your audience. Without an understanding of the audience’s own goals and preferences, it would have been impossible to know whether it’s better to focus on the benefits or on the harms one wishes to avoid. Regulatory fit instead contributes to the research in the psychology of persuasion (much like matching effects) on the key interplay between qualities of the message and qualities of the recipient.

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If you’re interested in the psychology of persuasion, check out my new online psychology course: Master Persuasion Psychology, available now. Use this link or the coupon code “blog29” to get a discount on the enrollment cost.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Oh, you noticed I was being snarky? Well it’s just that it’s so easy to think in categories, and this is just one example. Of course everything is a continuum, and even when the research actually does acknowledge it, it’s still simpler to present dichotomies. So you’ll forgive me and let me move on?
2. Oop… another caveat. While it’s true that some people are chronically more promotion or prevention focused, at any given moment, anyone can be especially focused on one goal or the other. Some of the persuasion research has considered these cases, but for simplicity, we’ll just talk about these as personality traits.

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