The unexpected psychological factor that brings us together (or keeps us apart).
We all know the feeling of hitting it off with a person you've just met. For reasons you can't explain, you feel certain that you and this person are destined for a great relationship, whether it's a romance, a workplace connection, or a friendship. A new study by Ru-de Liu and colleagues (2016), of Beijing Normal University, sheds light on the hidden signals that tell you that a new person is a good match for you.
The study is based on what's known as regulatory fit theory, which proposes that people feel that things are “right” when the type of goal they seek is the type of goal that’s available to them. The theory distinguishes between two types of goal-oriented foci—a prevention focus, in which you try to take care of obligations and stay safe; and a promotion focus, where you’re focused on achievement, improvement, and advancement. If you’re a prevention-focus type of person, you feel uncomfortable if a situation pushes you beyond your comfort zone. If you’re promotion-focused, you feel bored and aimless when all you can do is “stay safe.”
Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D.is currently a professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The author of over 160 refereed articles and book chapters and 16 books (many in multiple editions and translations), her most recent popular work is The Search for Fulfillment (January 2010, Ballantine Books). She also writes for the Huffington Post’s “Post 50” blog and is a frequent commentator on local, national, and international media outlets and has appeared on the Today Show, NBC Nightly News, Dateline, CNN, Olbermann, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Money Magazine, USA Today, and Time.com.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
When you’re meeting someone for the first time, the Beijing team argues, you’re also evaluating the other person’s regulatory focus. Will this be someone who will push you to your limit by always coming up with plans for new and “improved” ways of doing things? Or will this person provide you with comfort, security, and the means to meet your responsibilities? To test this theory, the researchers first assessed the regulatory style of their participants (all of whom were undergraduates) by having them complete a regulatory focus rating scale in which they indicated their agreement with a series of statements. Some of the statements on the scale oriented toward promotion included, “I frequently imagine how I will achieve my hopes and aspirations.” Prevention-focus items included statements such as, “I frequently think about how I can prevent failures in my life.”
The next step in the process was to ask participants to evaluate a person they’d never met, who expressed one of the two foci in an imaginary scenario. In one scenario, the new person was someone who seemed promotion-focused (“willing to take chances”) and in the other, the person was prevention-focused (“being loving and attentive to friends”). Across a series of studies, participants provided ratings of this other person along such dimensions as likability, competence, potential performance in graduate school, and how it would feel to be with this person.
Consistently, regardless of the framework in which the new person was introduced, like attracted like in terms of regulatory focus. It “felt right” for a participant to be with someone who shared his or her goal orientation. Whether in a formal evaluation, such as an applicant interview, or an informal one, in which participants simply rated how much they liked or felt good with the other person, this match of goals was a key predictor of their response to a stranger.
Interestingly, there was a slight bias toward preferring a promotion-oriented interviewee when the context had a more promotion-oriented flavor. You might be more likely to want to hire or admit as a student someone who seems ready to step up to the plate and try to advance. Conversely, if you’re looking for a friend or romantic partner, the “safe” alternative seems a bit preferable, and the results suggested that this was the case. The person interested in tending to a relationship may, after all, be more willing to forgive you when you’ve done something wrong or more patient if you need time to make a decision.
“Feeling right” on its own, however, proved to be a key factor in determining why people liked people described to them on the basis of motivation. Without being able to articulate exactly why, if you share the regulatory focus of an imaginary new person, you are likely to feel better about that person, maybe because you sense this match in perspectives. You may not realize why you like a particular person whom you don’t know very well, but it may boil down to a matter of motivational focus.
How can you apply these findings to your own relationships? The study suggests that we all aim to fairly quickly identify the signs of a new relationship partner’s motivational focus. Does the person talk about “wanting to go places” or does this individual like to “stay put”? How does this compare with your own desires for safety vs. advancement?
Imagine, too, what happens when you're in a regulatory mismatch: If you’re prevention-focused, and so a little risk-averse, you will find it very difficult to work with or be in a relationship with someone who’s always looking to move up whatever ladder is available. You may resent a promotion-focused colleague who sees you as a steppingstone because you’ll feel like you’re going to be used. Conversely, if you’re always looking for a path to some higher point, you’ll give up in disgust if you feel that the other person is holding you back out of fear of the unknown.
In summary, we don’t always know why we like people, but knowing that regulatory focus is a possible factor can give you important cues. Finding fulfillment in relationships is a complex process that usually takes time, but those early indicators may just help you find that right match for you.