In the late 1990s Columbia University psychologist E. Tory Higgins developed regulatory focus theory (RFT) to describe two different approaches people use while pursuing a goal. He distinguishes between a promotion and prevention focused mindset. The former describes focusing on attaining high goals of accomplishment and advancement. People with a promotion focused mindset work quickly, think big and creatively, look for new opportunities, and embody optimism, planning for best case scenarios. In contrast, people with a prevention focus work slowly, methodically, and accurately. They plan for the worst and work hard to avoid mistakes and errors. Both mindsets can be effective toward reaching goals and individuals could potentially have different approaches depending on time and context.
This framework is useful to fully appreciate Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s message in the first Mishna of the second chapter of Pirkei Avot. In four powerful statements, Rabbi Yehuda embeds a running theme relating to making right choices and avoiding wrong ones. Yet, the first statement exhibits a fundamentally different tone than the latter three. Reminiscent of the promotion focus, the first statement is framed in a positive way: “Which is the straight path that a man should choose for himself? One which is an honor to the person adopting it, and [on account of which] honor [accrues] to him from others,” emphasizing that proper behavior should be personally and socially reinforcing; we should aspire to behave in ways that are inspiring.
In contrast, as we will see by analyzing each one, the tenor of the next three clauses is more cautionary, moving closer to what we would call a prevention focus. Each one provides another strategy to help us stay away from sinning.
As mentioned, people with a promotion focus tend to think broadly and don’t always concentrate on the smaller details. This can often come back to haunt them. Research reveals this effect most starkly regarding ethical infractions. Because of big picture thinking associated with promotion mindset, people sometimes ignore the dangers of ethical violations. In one study, encouraging people to think with a prevention focus instead of a promotion focus decreased unethical decision making (see Gino & Margolis, 2011). This may be motivating Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s second clause, warning us to “be careful with a light commandment as with a grave one, for you do not know the reward for the fulfillment of the commandments.” That is, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi warns us that despite the potential motivational benefits of a promotion focus, we need to also think in terms of prevention; if we overlook the small details, we risk significant negative consequences.
As background for understanding the third clause in the Mishna, one common culprit for bad financial, physical, and spiritual decisions stems from downplaying the importance of future rewards or punishments, and instead focusing on the present. The psychological literature refers to this phenomenon as delay discounting. On the rewards side, someone with a particularly high delay discounting score prefers smaller, sooner, rewards over larger, later ones (e.g., taking $100 now instead of $200 in a month from now). In terms of punishments, people who score high in delay discounting are not heavily impacted by negative consequences unless they are immediate; if the behavior only becomes a problem in the distant future, that consequence does not tend to impact their decisions in the present.
With this in mind, we can understand Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s third statement as a strategy to combat delay discounting. He teaches us that we should conduct a cost-benefit analysis: “reckon the loss [that may be sustained through the fulfillment] of a commandment against the reward [accruing] thereby, and the gain [that may be obtained through the committing] of a transgression against the loss [entailed] thereby.” Rashi explains that, when performing a mitzvah, there can be a short-term financial loss due to the time and effort exerted for the mitzvah, but that we should mentally contrast that financial loss to the long-term reward earned for performing the mitzvah. The correct decision, says Rashi, is to perform the mitzvah based on the long-term reward, rather than the short-term sacrifice. The opposite is true when it comes to sin. Contemplate the reward and pleasure we can gain from sin in the short-term and contrast it with the long-term punishment which ought to outweigh the short-term, minor pleasure.
One way of making the cost-benefit analysis and future-oriented thinking more tangible is through using visualization. Commenting on this third clause, Meiri writes that, in order to motivate ourselves to perform mitzvot and avoid sin, we should make the mental experience more palpable. For mitzvot, we should imagine that we already have the reward for performing the mitzvah in our hands and that if we don’t do the mitzvah, we will lose the reward. As Kahneman and Tversky (1979) note, losing something we already possess is much harder to give up than not getting something in the first place (known by its technical term, loss aversion). In terms of sin, we should imagine actually receiving the punishment that we deserve for the action we are considering committing, and then imagine getting saved from that punishment. That should better ingrain the motivation to avoid doing it in the first place.
This emphasis on tapping into the natural human psychology to avoid loss can help us understand the fourth of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s messages: “Apply your mind to three things and you will not come into the hands of sin: Know what there is above you: an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and all your deeds are written in a book.” In a close reading, Rabbi Shmuel de Uceda asks, why does the Mishna use the phrasing one will not come to the “hands of sin” and not just state simply that one will not come to sin? He answers that there is a difference between a sin and the hands of sin. Just like a container has a handle (a “yad”) that one grasps to use the container, so too sin has a handle that one grasps in order to sin. The handle of a sin is comprised of smaller sins. One first violates smaller—i.e., what are perceived as minor—sins, which serves as a gateway to more significant violations. To avoid the dangers of such minor infractions, contemplate deeply on what is above you.
The phenomenon of smaller infractions snowballing into larger ones is often referred to as the slippery slope effect. In order to combat this tendency, researchers prompted people to think in terms of a prevention mindset, focusing on the dangers of small violations. Doing so helped prevent them from sliding down the slippery slope to more serious violations (Welsh, Ordóñez, Snyder, and Christian, 2014).
In all, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi balances the motivational benefits of a more positive and promotion focus with the more cautious aspects of the prevention focus. Together, he encourages us to aspire to goals of proactive success while also keeping our guard up by being cognizant of the mechanisms of unethical and spiritually derelict behavior.