How Your Focus Explains Why Condom Sales Soar During a Recession


“Promotion focus is about maximizing gains and avoiding missed opportunities.”

When you want to influence someone else a reasonable approach is to start by trying to figure out what that person wants and use that understanding to increase your odds.

In Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence, Tory Higgins and Heidi Grant Halvorson explore how our focus changes what we see and how we are influenced. The book grew out of Higgins' research. To them you either tend to be promotion-focused or prevention-focused. And it matters because it changes how we should influence you.

If you are promotion-focused, you want to advance and avoid missed opportunities. If you are prevention-focused, you want to minimize losses and keep things working.

If you are promotion-focused …

Studies from our lab (and many other labs now) show that promotion-focused people respond best to optimism and praise, are more likely to take chances and seize opportunities, and excel at creativity and innovation. Unfortunately, all that chance-taking and positive-thinking makes them more prone to error, less likely to completely think things through, and usually unprepared with a Plan B in case things fail. For a promotion-focused person, what’s really “bad” is a non-gain: a chance not taken, a reward unearned, a failure to advance. They would rather say Yes! and have it blow up in their faces than feel like they let Opportunity’s knock go unanswered.

If you, on the other hand, see goals as opportunities to meet responsibilities and to stay safe you are prevention-focused …

They consider what might go badly if they don’t work hard enough to achieve. They don’t play to win – they play to not lose. They want, more than anything else, to feel secure. When people pursue this kind of “good,” they have what we call a prevention focus. In our studies, we find the prevention-focused to be more driven by criticism and the looming possibility of failure (if, for example, they don’t work hard enough) than by applause and a sunny outlook. Prevention-focused people are often more conservative and don’t take chances, but their work is also more thorough, accurate, and carefully-planned. Of course, too much caution and hypervigilance for error pretty much kills off any potential for growth, creativity, and innovation. But for the prevention-focused, the ultimate “bad” is a loss you failed to stop: a mistake made, a punishment received, a danger you failed to avoid. They would much prefer to say No! to an opportunity, rather than end up in hot water.

Of course we're not pinned down into one category all of the time. Things change. How does this work? Let's look at condom sales.

Here's a paradox for you: why do condom sales go up in a bad economy, despite the fact that anxiety about finances reliably leads people to have less sex? The answer isn't as obvious as you may think. Yes, it's true that in a bad economy people are less inclined to want to have more children to support—but if wanting to avoid an unwanted pregnancy were enough, all by itself, to get people to use condoms, you'd expect them to be used far more frequently and reliably in the good economy too.

Once again, it comes down to a question of motivational fit. In good times, sex is fundamentally about pleasure—it's about fun. (Or at least it's supposed to be.) Using condoms is not a good fit (no pun intended) for sex because they are not a means to pleasure—they are a means to safety. And as you'll see, means that work for one focus are generally awful for the other. So if at the moment when you're deciding whether to use a condom, condoms don't fit your focus, it won't feel right to use one.

Unless, of course, times are bad rather than good. When the economy is bad, you experience a lot of anxiety every day, and that feeling spills over into your sex life as well. Even if sex itself remains mostly about pleasure, life in a bad economy becomes much more about safety and security. Condoms are a great means for those goals, so they create more motivational fit with people's general focus, and using a condom feels right.

Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence goes on to explore more about how where we focus changes almost everything.