Balancing Hairy, Audacious Thinking with Some Anxious Vigilance

When someone has a heart attack, an unworkable elevator can be a life-or-death situation. In 2021, the New York City Housing Authority received 25,376 complaints about elevator malfunctions. With over 70,000 elevators in the city, this is not terrible. But not everyone has the luxury of using stairs. There are people with physical disabilities, people with twin babies in strollers, and it can be discouraging to carry two heavy bag of groceries up 15 floors.

Which raises questions about the decision of choosing apartments. If you live on the 46th floor of an apartment building, you might get a luxurious view of parks or an ocean. But there is always a tradeoff. A city fire truck only reaches up to the 10th floor. Live any higher and there is a decreased likelihood that you get out of a fire safely.

It pays to be vigilant. This is especially important if there are legitimate reasons that you or members of your household face difficulties climbing a large number of stairs. Building these anxious predictions into the decision-making process is a sign of mental fortitude and flexibility.

Hold Lightly What Society Rewards

You will find an endless number of scientific articles and books suggesting that to acquire greater happiness and personal growth, be promotion oriented. People who are promotion oriented eagerly seek out gains and accomplishments, with aspirational goals. Leonardo Da Vinci. Maria Montessori. Thomas Jefferson. Marie Curie. Nikola Tesla. Ada Lovelace. Bob Marley. Jennifer Doudna. People who are prevention oriented, in contrast, avoid errors and failures, with security goals. Think of nurses, editors, school principals, and emergency medical technicians. Not the chosen fields that best-selling biographers such as Walter Isaacson tackle.

While promotion oriented people generate a higher frequency of ideas and more creative ideas, prevention oriented people perseverance longer on tasks, finding alternative routes around obstacles. Without perseverance, creative ideas are half-baked and never disseminated. Creative solutions depend on both promotion and prevention orientations.

In a prevention mode, people narrow their attention to immediate details and less likely to shift to another activity. This reduction in flexibility is paired with a strong impulse to work through, understand, and improve the existing situation. When in an anxious, vigilant state where errors are avoided, people engage in “a more constrained, systematic, and analytical processing mode” where there is a high level of persistence. If there is a lack of urgency and people have time to complete a task, a prevention mode is helpful. While the positive emotions in promotion mode are ideal for generating a wide range of ideas, and creative ideas, there is a useful pairing with anxious vigilance to stay engaged and persist to bring those ideas to fruition.

A Call for Intentionality

You benefit from acknowledging the usefulness of both motivational orientations when navigating challenging decisions. It is not enough to be strongly promotion and prevention oriented. You must develop an awareness of which orientation is most suitable for a particular task, and flexibly switch to that orientation.

The individual differences most rewarded by society are not indicative of what society needs. Know what’s in your psychological arsenal. Keep on building your psychological arsenal. Leverage your social network for people who can complement your psychological arsenal.

Rarely will you get the apartment with the panoramic view of the city and easy access when emergencies arise. Be intentional in deciding what to emphasize in your decisions.

Know someone who has a hard time with anxiety? Share these Provoked ideas with them!

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is the author of The Art of Insubordination: How to Dissent and Defy Effectively  (Avery/Penguin) and is a Professor of Psychology and leads The Well-Being Laboratory at George Mason University.