Home All Prevention or Promotion? (Book Review)

Prevention or Promotion? (Book Review)

written by Lisa Sansom 14 May 2014

Lisa Sansom, MAPP '10, is the owner of LVS Consulting, an independent consulting firm that helps to build positive organizations. Lisa provide services such as individual and leadership coaching, team facilitation, effective communications training, Appreciative Inquiry and change management consulting. Full Bio.

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When I first read Heidi Grant Halvorson’s book Succeed, I was still a little fuzzy on the concept of what it really meant to be promotion-focused or prevention-focused. Then I took an online course from Heidi, and she patiently and thoroughly explained the concept in response to our many questions. Then I read the book she wrote with Tory Higgins,Focus. I had to admit it after all. I am generally prevention-focused. Sigh.

Do Promotion-Focused People Have More Fun?

It seems that promotion-focused people have more fun. Promotion-focused individuals “see their goals as opportunities for gain or advancement. In other words, they are focused on all the great things that will happen for them when they succeed” (p. xii). They go for the gusto, they create stories, they have adventures, they seem to be happier and more social. In essence, these are all the things that we tend to associate with a great life. However, this can make them more prone to error.

Prevention-focused people are about making sure that things don’t go wrong, about avoiding error, about mitigating problems. “Prevention-focused people are often more conservative and don’t take chances, but their work is also more thorough, accurate and carefully planned” (p. xii). When things go “just fine”, a prevention-focused person is satisfied. But where’s the fun and happiness in that? It seems boring and dull to be so prevention-focused, not to mention that promotion-focused people get all the positive attention and prevention-focused people seem to fly under the radar. It’s hard to attribute praise to someone who is prevention-focused when nothing is broken and runs smoothly, yet promotion-focused people get the public accolades for visible successes.

The Bright Side of My Focus

Once I got past the “woe is me” song and could dive into the book, I felt quite encouraged. For one thing, being promotion-focused or prevention-focused in one domain doesn’t mean that you are that way all the time. Halvorson, for example, shares that in her work she is very promotion-focused. But in her parenting, she is more prevention-focused, ensuring that harm does not come to her children and dangers are avoided. This makes a lot of sense!

Also, both promotion- and prevention-focused people want to be effective. They are just doing so in very different ways. Promotion-focused people are at their best and more energized when things are going well. These are the people who will make it better and be very optimistic about outcomes and possibilities. Prevention-focused people find their effectiveness when things are going poorly. In fact, optimism might not work well for you if you are prevention-focused, because that’s not what’s at your core. Instead, you are likely a defensive pessimist. That works best for avoiding problems and ensuring that things run smoothly. This also explains why prevention-focused individuals do not score well on standard happiness assessments. It has more to do with our definition of happiness rather than our actual psychological well-being.

But what I really enjoyed about Focus was how much these two different orientations work for us in different situations, how we each have our own most effective point, if you will, and these orientations can be used to predict future behavior, increase effectiveness on teams, help understand decision-making and even be more adaptable and flexible by adopting the other orientation, even temporarily.

Standing Taller and Getting Along

I wish I had the room in this article to share all of the many insights I gained from this book. My fingers are yellow-stained from the highlighters that I went through (because, you know, in good prevention-focused manner, I don’t want to lose the wisdom…). But I don’t have room (again – being prevention-focused – I don’t want to make the error of having this article be so long that people are dissuaded from reading it). This book has helped me to understand myself a bit better, and stand a bit taller in my general prevention-focused mindset. Though I still do have promotion envy, I also see where I can and do embrace a bigger picture, a more optimistic mindset.

Beyond myself, however, this book has helped me to understand other important people in my life, including my family, my friends, my co-workers, and my clients. It has positively influenced the way I communicate with them for the greatest impact. For my prevention-focused director, I talk about all the pain and problems that we will avoid if we undertake a certain project. For my promotion-focused husband, I talk about all the great things that will happen in the future if we go on an amazing European vacation. Sadly, however, it turns out that my husband is very prevention-focused when it comes to financial domains, so I’m still working on this one. Perhaps there will be a sequel to Focus coming soon?


Halvorson, H. (2010). Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals. New York. Penguin Group.

Halvorson, H., & Higgins, T. (2013). Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence. Hudson Street Press.

Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Yellow highlighter courtesy of liveandrock
Child with seatbelt courtesy of stevendepolo

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angus Skinner 14 May 2014 - 9:46 am

Nicely done Lisa. Hope you win the European vacation – don’t miss Venice! That extraordinary place built from fleeing both the barbarians and the plague is such a small place that has no cars. The US is such a contrast. But beware, it is not without cause that they claim to have invented money.

Marie-Josee Shaar 14 May 2014 - 11:06 am

When I posted my PPND article last month about health promotion and disease prevention (https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/marie-josee-salvas/2014040828455), Amanda Horne commented that I should check out this very book. Thanks for picking up that ball and informing us a little more about the 2 orientations!


Lisa Sansom (@LVSConsulting) 14 May 2014 - 11:55 am

Thank you both Angue and Marie-Josee for your lovely comments – I really have enjoyed and learned a lot from this book. I have great appreciation for the research that Heidi is doing, and she explains it all very well using great examples. It makes me think all the time about where people are coming from and how I can better relate to them. Will keep you posted about the European vacation!

(And thanks to others who have emailed me with great comments behind the scenes – I very much appreciate it!!)

Margaret Greenberg 14 May 2014 - 5:38 pm

Lisa, I can hear your voice while reading this article – well done! I like how you distinguish between the two mindsets and that we are not necessarily stuck in either one forever. Thanks for piquing my curiosity about this book. I’m getting my highlighters ready.

Lisa Sansom (@LVSConsulting) 14 May 2014 - 6:02 pm

Thanks Margaret – I’m not telling you how many highlighters I burned through on *your* book! But it’s well-inked!

Margaret Greenberg 15 May 2014 - 9:04 am

You crack me up!

Amanda Horne 20 May 2014 - 1:17 am

Lisa, when I read this “I am generally prevention-focused. Sigh.” I thought to myself ‘it’s ok Lisa!!’. From my limited understanding of Focus, neither promotion or prevention is better than the other. (My understanding is from listening to an interview with Heidi Grant Halvorson. I haven’t read the book.). I’m sometimes trouble that negative, pessimistic, avoidance and prevention are considered negative (bad), and positive, optimistic, approach and promotion are positive (good). However from the rest of your article I can see that you make the case for both perspectives. So I hope that you are enjoying ( non-judgementally) whatever focus you have in a particular situation.
Perhaps I should read the book and continue the theme which you and Marie Josee started….


Lisa Sansom (@LVSConsulting) 22 May 2014 - 9:01 pm

Ha ha Amanda – you have found me out! I think it was sort of like the impact of Susan Cain’s “Quiet” – now it seems to be more socially acceptable to be an introvert because of her extremely well-written book. With Halvorson’s work, I am growing to accept my natural tendencies and grow my competencies as well. Being promotion-focused is more of an acquired skill for me and since promotion-focus *seems* to be more socially accepted and encouraged, it can be sometimes hard to make the case for prevention-focus, and therefore harder to want to own it. But I’m learning!

Completely agree with you – neither is inherently better than the other and we need both to make the world work. However, society sometimes has values otherwise. Let’s hope that Halvorson’s book opens some collective eyes!

Let us know when you read the book – will be very interested in your perspective!


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