Socioemotional Selectivity

rose-tinted glasses


Socioemotional Selectivity Theory, developed by Stanford psychologist, Laura Carstensen, a life-span theory of motivation, maintains that as time horizons shrink, as they typically do with age, people become increasingly selective, investing greater resources in emotionally meaningful goals and activities.

According to the theory, motivational shifts also influence cognitive processing. Aging is associated with a relative preference for positive over negative information in attention and memory (called the ‘positivity effect’).

Because they place a high value on emotional satisfaction, older adults often spend more time with familiar individuals with whom they have had rewarding relationships. This selective narrowing of social interaction maximizes positive emotional experiences and minimizes emotional risks as individuals become older. According to this theory, older adults systematically hone their social networks so that available social partners satisfy their emotional needs.

The theory also focuses on the types of goals that individuals are motivated to achieve. Knowledge-related goals aim at knowledge acquisition, career planning, the development of new social relationships and other endeavors that will pay off in the future. Emotion-related goals are aimed at emotion regulation, the pursuit of emotionally gratifying interactions with social partners and other pursuits whose benefits can be realized in the present. When people perceive their future as open ended, they tend to focus on future-oriented/knowledge-related goals but when they feel that time is running out, their focus tends to shift towards present-oriented/emotion-related goals.

Research on this theory often compares age groups (i.e., young and old adulthood) but the shift in goal priorities is a gradual process that begins in early adulthood. Importantly, the theory contends that it is not age that is causing the goal shifts but age-associated changes in time perspective. Researchers have found that across diverse samples, Norwegians, Catholic nuns, African Americans, Chinese Americans, and European Americans, older adults report better control of their emotions and fewer negative emotions than do younger adults.

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