Socioemotional Selectivity Theory - developed by Stanford psychologist, Laura Carstensen - is a life-span theory of motivation. The theory 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.
Socioemotional selectivity theory asserts that time perspective is integrally involved in human goal-directed behavior and, more broadly, in human motivation.
The awareness of time, not just clock time or calendar time, but lifetime, is a fundamental human characteristic. Although cultures clearly diﬀer in their treatment of time, a basic awareness of time is ubiquitous in all known cultures and peoples. This universal ability plays an essential role in motivation. Goals are often set within temporal contexts, and goal selection depends fundamentally on the perception of time. Although a reasonably stable set of goals—ranging from physical safety and sustenance to more psychological goals such as feeling comfortable and gaining information—motivates behavior throughout life, the perception of time inﬂuences which is adopted. That is, the same essential set of goals operates through life, but the relative importance of speciﬁc goals within this goal constellation changes as a function of time.
Socioemotional selectivity theory focuses on two main classes of psychological goals: one comprises expansive goals, such as acquiring knowledge or making new social contacts; the second comprises goals related to feelings, such as balancing emotional states or sensing that one is needed by others.
When the future is perceived as open-ended, future-oriented goals are most important and individuals pursue goals that optimize long-range outcomes. In the interpersonal realm, such goals often pertain to acquisition of knowledge or to seeking new social contacts—even relatively superﬁcial contacts or ones tinged with negative aﬀect—because the information gleaned from such contacts may be useful in the future. In contrast, when time is perceived as limited, emotionally meaningful goals—e.g., a desire to feel needed by others—are pursued because such goals have more immediate payoﬀs.
Thus, according to the theory, temporal perspective is an inherent aspect of goal selection. Since age is inextricably and negatively associated with future time, age-related patterns emerge. The theory posits clear developmental trajectories for emotional and knowledge-related goals. Early in life, time is typically perceived as expansive and people are motivated to prepare for a long and unknown future. With this future-orientation, developing organisms allocate considerable resources to obtaining knowledge and developing new skills, and are motivated to do so particularly when knowledge is limited. Because knowledge striving is so important from late adolescence to middle adulthood, it is pursued relentlessly even at the cost of emotional satisfaction. As people move through life they become increasingly aware that time in some sense is “running out”. More social contacts feel superﬁcial—trivial—in contrast to the ever-deepening ties of existing close relationships. It becomes increasingly important to make the “right” choice, not to waste time on gradually diminishing future payoﬀs. Increasingly, emotionally meaningful goals are pursued.
Developmentally, the knowledge trajectory starts high during the early years of life and declines gradually over the life course as knowledge accumulate and the future for which it is banked grows ever shorter.
Unlike knowledge-related goals, emotional goals follow a curvilinear trajectory. Socioemotional selectivity theory acknowledges that emotional needs are important throughout life, but posits that their relative salience among the constellation of social motives changes with age. The emotion trajectory is highest during infancy and early childhood when emotional trust and relatedness are initially established and rises again in old age when future-oriented strivings are less relevant.
The theory predicts thus that people who are older or are otherwise in situations that place constraints on time attach greater importance to emotionally meaningful goals relative to those who are younger and/or perceive time as relatively open-ended.
Socioemotional selectivity theory provides an explanation for the apparently paradox ﬁnding that life satisfaction and subjective well-being are maintained or even improve in old age, in spite of dwindling social networks. The theory accounts for this phenomenon in motivational terms: limiting contact with peripheral social partners allows individuals to optimize emotional experience with people closest related to them.
Like disengagement theory, socioemotional selectivity theory views age-related reductions in social contacts as motivated. However, disengagement theory predicts social withdrawal from intimate relationships as well as peripheral relationships and posits emotional tranquility to play a central role in the mutual withdrawal of individuals and society. Socioemotional selectivity theory, in contrast, suggests that close relationships are maintained in later life and emotional investment in them increases.
The claims of the theory have been supported by extensive experimental evidence, suggesting that not age itself, but rather the limited time perspective is the reason for an increase of importance for emotionally meaningful—in contrast to knowledge-oriented—goals.
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