What Is Socioemotional Selectivity Theory?

Elderly couple enjoying spending time together.

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Socioemotional selectivity theory, which was developed by Stanford psychology professor Laura Carstensen, is a theory of motivation throughout the lifespan. It suggests that as people age they become more selective in the goals they pursue, with older people prioritizing goals that will lead to meaning and positive emotions and younger people pursuing goals that will lead to the acquisition of knowledge.

Key Takeaways: Socioemotional Selectivity Theory

  • Socioemotional selectivity theory is a lifespan theory of motivation which states that, as time horizons grow shorter, people’s goals shift such that those with more time prioritize future-oriented goals and those with less time prioritize present-oriented goals.
  • Socioemotional selectivity theory was originated by psychologist Laura Carstensen, and a great deal of research has been conducted that has found support for the theory.
  • Socioemotional selectivity research also uncovered the positivity effect, which refers to older adults' preference for positive information over negative information.

Socioemotional Selectivity Theory Throughout the Lifespan

While aging is often associated with loss and infirmness, socioemotional selectivity theory indicates that there are positive benefits to aging. The theory is based on the idea that humans change their goals as they age due to the uniquely human ability to understand time. Thus, when people are young adults and see time as open-ended, they prioritize goals that focus on the future, such as learning new information and expanding their horizons through activities like travel or enlarging their social circle. Yet, as people grow older and perceive their time as more constrained, their goals shift to become more focused on emotional gratification in the present. This leads people to prioritize experiences that are meaningful, such as deepening relationships with close friends and family and savoring favorite experiences.

It’s important to understand that as much as socioemotional selectivity theory tends to emphasize age-related changes in goals, those changes aren’t the result of chronological age per se. Instead, they come about because of people’s perceptions of the time they have left. Because people perceive their time dwindling as they age, adult age differences are the easiest way to see socioemotional selectivity theory at work. However, people’s goals may shift in other situations too. For example, if a young adult becomes terminally ill, their goals will shift as their time is truncated. Similarly, if one knows a specific set of circumstances is coming to an end, their goals may shift as well. For instance, if one is planning to move out of state, as the time of their departure draws closer, they will be more likely to spend time cultivating the relationships that matter most to them while worrying less about expanding their network of acquaintances in the town they will be leaving.

Thus, socioemotional selectivity theory demonstrates that the human ability to perceive time impacts motivation. Whereas the pursuit of long-term rewards makes sense when one perceives their time as expansive, when time is perceived as limited, emotionally fulfilling and meaningful goals take on new relevance. As a result, the shift in goals as time horizons change outlined by socioemotional selectivity theory is adaptive, enabling people to focus on longer term work and family goals when they’re young and achieving emotional gratification as they get older.

Positivity Effect

Research on socioemotional selectivity theory also revealed that older adults have a bias towards positive stimuli, a phenomenon called the positivity effect. The positivity effect suggests that, in contrast to young adults, older adults tend to pay more attention to and remember positive information over negative information.

Studies have shown that the positivity effect is the result of both enhanced processing of positive information and diminished processing of negative information as we age. Moreover, research suggests that while both older and younger adults pay more attention to negative information, older adults do this significantly less. Some scholars have proposed that the positivity effect is the result of cognitive decline because positive stimuli is less cognitively demanding than negative stimuli. However, research has demonstrated that older adults with higher levels of cognitive control tend to exhibit the strongest preference for positive stimuli. Thus, the positivity effect appears to be the result of older adults using their cognitive resources to selectively process information that will meet their goal to experience more positive and less negative emotion.

Research Findings

There is a great deal of research support for socioemotional selectivity theory and the positivity effect. For example, in a study that examined the emotions of adults between the ages of 18 and 94 during a one-week period, Carstensen and colleagues found that although age wasn’t related to how often people experienced positive emotions, negative emotions declined throughout the adult lifespan until about age 60. They also found that older adults were more likely to appreciate positive emotional experiences and let go of negative emotional experiences.

Similarly, research by Charles, Mather, and Carstensen found that amongst groups of young, middle-aged, and older adults that were shown positive and negative images, the older groups recalled and remembered fewer negative images and more positive or neutral images, with the oldest group recalling the least negative images. Not only is this evidence for the positivity effect, it also supports the idea that older adults use their cognitive resources to regulate their attention so they can meet their emotional goals.

Socioemotional selectivity theory has even been shown to impact entertainment preferences in younger and older adults. Research by Marie-Louis Mares and colleagues has shown that older adults gravitate towards meaningful, positive entertainment, while younger adults prefer entertainment that enables them to experience negative emotions, relieve boredom, or simply enjoy themselves. In one study, for instance, adults who were 55 and older preferred to watch sad and heartwarming TV shows they anticipated would be meaningful, whereas adults who were 18 to 25 years old preferred to watch sitcoms and scary TV shows. Studies have shown that older adults are generally more interested in watching TV shows and movies when they believe the stories will have more meaning.

While the goal changes outlined by socioemotional selectivity theory may help people adjust as they age and increase well-being, there are potential downsides. Older adults' desire to maximize positive emotions and avoid negative emotions may lead them to avoid seeking information about possible health issues. In addition, tendency to favor positive information over negative information may lead to a failure to pay attention to, remember, and make adequately informed decisions related to health care.

Sources

  • Carstensen, Laura L., Monisha Pasupathi, Ulrich Mayr, and John R. Nesselroade. "Emotional Experience in Everyday Life Across the Adult Life Span." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 79, no. 4, 2000, pp. 644-655. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11045744
  • Charles, Susan Turk, Mara Mather, and Laura L. Carstensen. "Aging and Emotional Memory: The Forgettable Nature of Negative Images for Older Adults." Journal of Experimental Psychology, vol. 132, no. 2, 2003, pp. 310-324. https://doi.org/10.1037/0096-3445.132.2.310
  • King, Katherine. "Awareness of Endings Sharpens Focus at Any Age." Psychology Today, 30 November 2018. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/lifespan-perspectives/201811/awareness-endings-sharpens-focus-any-age
  • Life-span Development Laboratory. "Positivity Effect." Stanford University. https://lifespan.stanford.edu/projects/positivity-effect
  • Life-span Development Laboratory. "Socioemotional Selectivity Theory (SST)" Stanford University. https://lifespan.stanford.edu/projects/sample-research-project-three
  • Lockenhoff, Corinna E., and Laura L. Carstensen. "Socioemotional Selectivity Theory, Aging, and Health: The Increasingly Delicate Balance Between Regulating Emotions and Making Tough Choices." Journal of Personality, vol. 72, no. 6, 2004, pp. 1395-1424. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15509287
  • Mares, Marie-Louise, Anne Bartsch, and James Alex Bonus. "When Meaning Matters more: Media Preferences Across the Adult Life Span." Psychology and Aging, vol. 31, no. 5, 2016, pp. 513-531. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pag0000098
  • Reed, Andrew E., and Laura L. Carstensen. "The Theory Behind the Age-Related Positivity Effect." Frontiers in Psychology, 2012. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00339