In a fun study in Germany, the researchers commissioned professional football players to take five penalty kicks. One group was given the following objective: ‘your challenge is to score at least three goals’. The other group heard ‘your challenge is not to miss more than twice’. You wouldn’t expect that this small difference in formulation would have a big effect on the players’ performance. However…

Before taking the penalty kicks, a personality test was taken from the players. One group of players turned out to be promotional, the other preventive. Promotional players see a goal as a challenge, they play to win and do so with great enthusiasm. They fly in, don’t think too much and don’t shy away from risks. Preventive players see an objective rather as a responsibility, they play for nothing and are more alert. They play in a concentrated way, they are focused on every danger, they do not work without courage and they prefer not to take any risks.

Strangely enough, the formulation of the objective turned out to have a completely different effect on the performance of both groups. The promotional players did significantly better when the objective was positively formulated (‘your challenge is to score at least three goals’). For the preventive players it was just the opposite (‘your challenge is not to miss more than twice’). They themselves did it twice as well as when they were given a positively formulated goal.

This research is just one example of dozens of similar experiments carried out by Higgins and his team over the past 30 years. Each time they come to the same conclusions. According to them, you can best:

  1. formulate objectives positively among promotional staff and in the form of challenges (try to achieve at least x)
  2. formulate objectives in a negative way among preventive staff and in the form of responsibilities (avoid making more mistakes than y)