By James F. M. Cornwell, Ph.D., Becca Franks, Ph.D., & E. Tory Higgins, Ph.D.


The search for the roots of personality has been central to the study of human behavior since at least the classical Greeks. Hippocrates first sourced personality in the balance or imbalance of different “humors” that existed within the body, and the Greek physician Galen was the first to organize this theory into the fourfold typology with which many are still familiar today.  According to the theory, there are four personality types: sanguine (cheerful and gregarious), choleric (charismatic and fast), phlegmatic (relaxed and traditional), and melancholic (perfectionistic and anxious).

While there is little in modern science to support the notion that these personality types are located within particular bodily humors, and little to suggest that the imbalance of these humors leads to the expression of these personality types, there are still insights from this classical theory that may be applicable to understanding goal pursuit today. Moreover, the four personality types bear a striking resemblance to different motivational orientations, the evidence for which is far more empirically well-founded.

In a recent paper, we highlighted the overlap between each personality type and a motivational orientation. In addition, we drew on the classical Greek notion that optimal personal well-being involves mixing these personality traits properly.  We argued that optimal temperament (derived from the Latin verb temperare, which means “to mix properly”) arises from having motivational orientations that are equally strong—ones that can both support and place a check on one another.  Furthermore, we argued that many of the individual differences in the goal pursuit literature in the context of consumer research may be rooted in having an overly dominant motivational orientation.

Regulatory Focus and Regulatory Mode

The motivational orientations we draw on for our analysis are those described by regulatory focus theory and regulatory mode theory, which are complementary theories about motivation that describe different goal pursuit aims (regulatory focus) and different goal pursuit methods (regulatory modes).

Regulatory focus theory identifies two distinct systems related to the focus of the goal pursuit. Those operating in a promotion focus are predominantly in pursuit of ideals, advancement, and gains—moving from a status quo toward something better.  Those operating in a prevention focus are predominantly in pursuit of security, safety, and non-losses—maintaining (or restoring) a satisfactory status quo and avoiding something worse.

Regulatory mode theory identifies two distinct goal pursuit processes or modes. Those with a locomotion mode are primarily motivated to move smoothly from state to state, and generally establishing control and effecting change.  Those with an assessment mode are more prone to critical evaluation and reflection, ensuring complete satisfaction with their understanding of the costs and benefits of each option before making a decision.

Each of these four motivational orientations—promotion, prevention, locomotion, and assessment—has distinct characteristics, such that when one of these orientations dominates, i.e., is stronger than all the other orientations, people begin to exhibit aspects of that orientation in their personality, including both positive and, importantly, negative aspects.

Prevention (Phelgmatic)

Having a strong prevention focus is important; individuals cannot survive without attention to safety and security. However, this motivational orientation can have certain downsides if it is not checked by other motivations.  For example, those with a strong prevention focus can become overly attached to existing ways of doing things—managing others in ways they themselves were managed, even if they did not like that style of management when they were on the receiving end of it, or even engaging in the same behaviors repeatedly in spite of ethical concerns about those behaviors.  In terms of decision making and behavior, those with a prevention focus are uniquely susceptible to the endowment effect, placing a disproportionate value on an existing status quo.  Their overly careful nature can also cause them to avoid committing to particular points of view, and instead endorsing perspectives that they see as a compromise between two extremes—the compromise effect.

Assessment (Melancholic)

Looking before leaping is an important habit, and understanding your environment before acting on it can certainly be beneficial. However, this motivational orientation has a considerable number of downsides when it isn’t checked by other motivations.  For example, those with a strong assessment mode can be perfectionistic, and therefore more prone to getting caught in a deliberation loop, never acting on a decision.  Their desire to ensure that everything is correct leads to procrastination, and, paradoxically, regret.  This orientation could explain one form of variety seeking, in which consumers seek a variety of different possibilities before settling on the right choice.  People with a dominant assessment motivation, even if they found an option which they favored right away, would nevertheless slog through all of the possibilities in a seemingly endless search for the “best” choice. Dominant assessment can be highly stressful.

Promotion (Sanguine)

In addition to security, individuals also need to grow, and this is the role of goals pursued in the promotion focus. However, the emphasis on gains might make those with a dominant promotion focus unreliable, since they’re willing to change tasks if given the possibility of a greater outcome.  They’re also much more likely to be distractible, since many distractions produce a greater amount of pleasure compared to the work one is doing.  In terms of consumer behavior, these may be the individuals most prone to the effect known as moral licensing—having established their moral credit with one good deed, they may feel “licensed” to engage in subsequent unethical behavior.  Those with a dominant promotion focus are far more likely to switch tasks once some progress has been made toward a particular goal.

Locomotion (Choleric)

When faced with a decision, having a propensity for decisiveness can be valuable. Having goals is great, but you also need to actually get things done.  This is where the locomotion mode comes in.  However, this leap-before-you-look motivation has downsides as well if left unchecked.  Those with a dominant locomotion mode tend to think more highly of themselves, and are prone to self-flattery.  They also think they’re extremely helpful to others, but, when asked, those on the receiving end of their help disagree.  In consumer behavior, you might see this manifest itself in the other form of variety seeking, in which an individual seeks stimulation and constant novelty.  Like each of the orientations, the locomotion mode needs to be properly mixed with the other orientations.

The Proper Mix

Our argument is not that these motivations are best kept at a moderate level in order to keep their downsides in check. We are not arguing for “moderation in all things.” In fact, keeping orientations at a moderate level might actually cause you to miss out on the upsides that each has to offer.  Instead, we argue that what is needed is for all of the motivations to be strong, so that, in addition to providing their benefits, they can check one another’s downsides.  Doing so actually creates the conditions under which each motivational orientation can do what it does best for the individual.  For example, a person with a dominant prevention focus may be so focused on maintaining a secure status quo, that he or she might overlook an option that provides more security, better security, than the current option.  By having a strong promotion focus as a check, the person’s prevention focus actually becomes more successful.  Another interesting line of research highlights the preference for speed over accuracy among those with a strong locomotion mode and the preference for accuracy over speed among those with a strong assessment mode.  The intriguing finding is that mixing groups of strong locomotors and strong assessors together does not produce middling amounts of speed and accuracy, but, on the contrary, groups that are both fast and accurate.

There is other empirical evidence to suggest that such mixing can be beneficial. Individuals with the highest levels of achievement, for example, are those with both a strong locomotion and a strong assessment mode.  Relationships between dyads of individuals in which one person is strongly prevention focused and the other is strongly promotion focused tend to have the best long-term relationships outcomes.

All of this suggests that if we want to be the best decisions makers and pursuers of goals that we can be, we need to ensure that our motivational orientations are strong and equal. Only then can we achieve a balanced temperament rooted in the proper mix of motivations.


Further Reading

Cornwell, J. F. M., Franks, B., & Higgins, E. T. (2019). The proper mix: Balancing motivational orientations in goal pursuit. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 4(1), 13-20.


James Cornwell
James Cornwell is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the United States Military Academy at West Point. His research examines the relationships between motivation, ethics, and well-being within individuals and organizations.
James Cornwell

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