We all know the feeling of hitting it off with a person you meet for the first time. For reasons you can’t put into words, you are just certain that you and this person are destined for a great relationship, whether in romance, at work, or as a friend. A new study by Ru-de Liu and colleagues (2016), of Beijing Normal University, sheds light on those hidden signals telling you that a new person is a good match for you.
The study is based on what is called “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—aprevention focus, in which you’re trying to take care of obligations and stay safe, and apromotion focus, where you’re aimed toward achievement, improvement, and advancement. If you’re a prevention-focus type of person, you’ll feel uncomfortable if a situation is pushing you beyond your comfort zone. If you’re promotion-focused, in contrast, you’ll feel bored and aimless when all you can do is “stay safe.”
When you’re meeting someone for the first time, the Beijing team argues, you’re also evaluating that other person’s own regulatory focus. Will this be someone who will push you to your limit, 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 all of your responsibilities? To test this out, 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. Those statements on the scale oriented toward promotion included, for example: “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.”