Socioemotional selectivity theory

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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.[1] 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.[1]

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.[1] 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 the cause of these goal shifts is not age itself, i.e., not the passage of time itself, but rather an age-associated shift in time perspective.[1] This justified shift in perspective is the rational equivalent of the psychological perceptual disorder known as "foreshortened future," in which an individual, usually a young and physically healthy individual, unreasonably believes (either consciously or unconsciously) that his/her time horizons are more limited than they actually are, with the effect that the individual undervalues long-term goals and long-run pleasure and instead disproportionately pursues short-term goals and pleasure, thereby diverting resources from investment for the future and often even actively reduce his/her long-term prospects.

Cross-cultural incidence[edit]

Researchers have found that across diverse samples – ranging from Norwegians to Catholic nuns to African-Americans to Chinese Americans[clarification needed] to European-Americans – older adults report better control of their emotions and fewer negative emotions than do younger adults.[1] At the same time, culture seems to color how aging-related effects impact one's emotional life: Whereas older Americans were shown to de-emphasize negative experiences more than younger Americans, no such effect has been observed in Japan. Instead, older Japanese were shown to assign a greater value to positive aspects of otherwise negative experiences than younger Japanese, whereas no such effect has been observed in the U.S.[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Santrock, J.W. (2008). A Topical Approach to Life-Span Development. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.[page needed]
  2. ^ Grossmann, Igor; Karasawa, Mayumi; Kan, Chiemi; Kitayama, Shinobu (2014). "A cultural perspective on emotional experiences across the life span". Emotion 14 (4): 679. doi:10.1037/a0036041. PMID 24749641. 


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