For centuries, the dominant principle of motivation has been the hedonic principle that people are motivated to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. This principle continues to be central not only in psychology but in other disciplines as well, such as economics. Within psychology, the idea that people want to approach pleasure and avoid pain has been basic to theories of emotion, conditioning, achievement, and decision-making. When Freud discussed motivation “beyond the pleasure principle,” it was to emphasize that avoiding pain is almost as important as approaching pleasure.
Two decades ago, I proposed that scientists need to go beyond pleasure and pain to understand how motivation works. Why? Because there are two separate and distinct systems for approaching pleasure and avoiding pain, and the difference between them is critical for understanding what people feel, how they make judgments and decisions, and what they strive for. The scientific discoveries that were made by distinguishing between promotion motivation and prevention motivation have been my most important scientific contribution.
How do promotion and prevention motivation differ? At the highest level of analysis, promotion and prevention have different survival concerns. When individuals have a promotion focus, they are concerned with growth and mastery. When they have a prevention focus, they are concerned with safety and security. Individuals with a promotion versus prevention focus also differ in how they represent their goal pursuits, with promotion-focused individuals representing their goals as hopes and aspirations (ideals) and prevention-focused individuals representing their goals as duties and obligations (oughts).
This latter difference produces emotional differences as well because ideal versus ought goals are also used in self-evaluations of success or failure in goal pursuits (“How am I doing?”). Success versus failure produces happy-versus-sad emotions in the promotion system and calm-versus-anxious emotions in the prevention system. This means that what pleasure and pain actually feel like is different for promotion versus prevention. This is one way that the promotion–prevention distinction goes beyond the hedonic principle per se.
Finally, and importantly, there is a basic difference between promotion and prevention in what conditions produce pleasure and pain. A person's current state-of-affairs is the status quo for that person. It can be thought of as “0.” Importantly, this “0” is not neutral.