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Socioemotional selectivity theory

Dr. Simon Moss


According to socioemotional selectivity theory, promulgated by Carstensen, Isaacowitz, and Charles (1999), some individuals are virtually oblivious to the truism that time is limited. Instead, they experience the sense their time on this planet is infinite. Hence, one of their principal motives is to acquire more knowledge, information, resources, and perhaps status--to prepare for the future.

In contrast, other individuals are more cognizant of these constraints in time. As a consequence, these individuals are more inclined to optimize their emotional experience--and do not strive as vigorously to extend their information and resources. To fulfill this objective, they often focus on maintaining close and warm interpersonal relationships. This simple theory can explain a host of interesting scientific discoveries. Older individuals, because of their relative proximity to death, are more aware of these constraints in time (Carstensen, Isaacowitz, & Charles, 1999). As a consequence, older individuals are more inclined to resolve interpersonal conflict more rapidly, consistent with their prevailing motive to improve their emotional experience rather than boost their knowledge or status. In contrast, younger individuals might forego these positive affective experiences to seek truth, information, and knowledge.

Furthermore, this theory can explain that observation that individuals who reflect upon the feelings they would experience before a transition in their life, such as a graduation, can be persuaded more easily (DeWall, Visser, & Levitan, 2006). That is, reflections about some transition also highlight that time, at least in specific contexts, is constrained. These individuals are thus more inclined to agree to some request, often as a means to please someone else.

Consequences of temporal perspective

The temporal perspective of individuals, at least partly, determines the primary goals of individuals and, thus, impinges on their behavior. First, when time is perceived as unlimited rather than unlimited, individuals are especially inclined to focus their attention on the future not the present.

Many of the effects of age, however, can be overridden if young individuals are encouraged to focus on emotional features. This possibility was vindicated by Kennedy, Mather, & Carstensen (2004). In this study, participants, who were nuns, completed a questionnaire on wellbeing. Fourteen years later, they attempted to recall their answers to the various questions. Some participants were instructed to focus attention on their emotional states while they answered the questions. Other participants were instructed to respond as accurate as possible while they answered the questions. If asked to focus on their emotional state, the participants tended to answer the questions more positively. This finding that was observed in both young and older individuals.

Accordingly, when young individuals are instructed to direct their attention towards their emotions, they show some of the inclinations of older individuals--a tendency to focus more positive memories. Thus, some of the implications of temporal perspective are not a function of age per se but a function of contextual factors that are related to age.

Second, because of this focus on the future, individuals who conceptualize time as unbounded often sacrifice their immediate emotional experiences to acquire knowledge, skills, and resources. They are less inclined to direct their attention to cues that promote positive emotions (see also Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, & Vohs, 2001). Consistent with this premise, younger individuals are more inclined than older individuals to remember negative rather than positive information (see Carstensen, 2006& Mather & Carstensen, 2005)--called a negativity bias. That is, younger individuals, who often regard time as unconstrained, do not shift their attention away from negative stimuli, merely to preserve their emotional state.

In other words, when individuals perceive time in their life as unlimited, their goals primary revolve around the acquisition of knowledge, the cultivation of their career paths, the participation in novel or exciting events, and the formation of instrumental social relationships, for example. When individuals perceive their time as limited, their goals revolve around social relationships that are more gratifying and enjoyable as well as activities that seem more meaningful.

Third, because they sacrifice their emotional experiences to seek knowledge and truth, individuals who perceive time as unlimited are more willing to embrace conflict in their pursuit for information. They might, for example, be less reluctant to argue with a colleague.

Similarly, as predicted by the theory of socioemotional selectivity, when individuals perceive time as limited, they become more likely to forgive. That is, when time is limited, individuals focus on social and emotional needs rather than competence and power motives. Hence, they feel more driven to forgive (Allemand, 2009). This effect of time perspective is especially pronounced in younger individuals (Allemand, 2009).


When individuals perceive their identity as limited in time, fewer opportunities may be available to reach their goals. Consequently, in these circumstances, people experience a decrease in pathways, defined as a sense that many routes can be utilized to achieve personal objectives, a central feature of hope& people also feel less energized as a consequence, called agency. Therefore, as Davis and Hicks (2013) proposed, limited time horizons should be inversely associated with hope.

When individuals feel their identity is limited in time, their level of hope tends to diminish. However, feelings of authenticity tend to curb this effect of limited temporal perspective on hope. Decreases in pathways or opportunities tends to curb feelings of hope. As hope diminishes, performance declines, and feelings of meaning and purpose dissipate (Brackney & Westman, 1992& Varahrami, Arnau, Rosen, & Mascaro, 2010).

This possibility was corroborated by Davis and Hicks (2013). First, participants completed a scale that gauges the extent to which individuals feel their identity is limited or unconstrained over time. Typical items include "Most of my life lies ahead of me" or "There are only limited possibilities in my future". In addition, a measure of hope, entailing both a sense of agency and pathways, was administered. Finally, participants completed a measure of authenticity, reflecting the degree to which people are aware of themselves, critically evaluate themselves, and align to their values.

If participants perceived their identity as unlimited, rather than limited, in time, they were more likely to experience a sense of hope. This relationship, however, was not observed in people who also reported a feeling of authenticity. The same pattern of findings was observed when stability of identity over time was manipulated rather than measured& that is, participants received information that highlights how individuals in general are granted more time, or less time, than perhaps they realize to accomplish their goals. Again, however, the sense that people are granted more time than assumed enhanced hope, but only when authenticity was low.

Presumably, when individuals experience a sense of authenticity, they are more attuned to their fundamental values and passions. They can recognize how even their more immediate behaviors align to these values and passions, manifesting as hope.

Causes of temporal perspective

Several demographic, personality, and contextual factors can affect the temporal perspective of individuals--that is, whether they conceptualize time as limited or unlimited. Most of the research in this domain focuses on age. That is, time tends to shift from seemingly unlimited to limited as individuals age. Indeed, many inclinations that vary across age are ascribed to differences in time perspective.

Second, factors that actually limit time, such as a terminal illness, have also been shown to affect time perspective (Carstensen & Fredrickson, 1998). That is, the motivations that are prevalent in older individuals are also often observed in patients with such illnesses.

Third, experiences of life transitions have also been shown to affect time perspective. After a transition, such as a college graduation, individuals recognize that time, at least in specific contexts, is limited. As shown by DeWall, Visser, and Levitan (2006), even just recollections about past transitions, like graduations, increased receptivity to the positions that other individuals advocated.

Researchers have exploited these insights to manipulate temporal perspective in research. In the study conducted by Allemand (2009), for example, some participants were asked to imagine they are healthy and living in favorable conditions. Other participants were asked to imagine they are suffering from a critical, terminal illness. This manipulation did affect the inclination to forgive.

Helping other people

People often feel incredibly busy. However, when these people dedicate some of their time to helping other individuals, they do not feel as busy. They feel they are granted enough time. Presumably, after they assist other people, individuals feel more capable. They also feel they have accomplished more. This feeling of accomplishment instills the sense they have been granted adequate time.

Mogilner, Chance, and Norton (2012) conducted a series of studies that verify this possibility. For example, in one study, participants were encouraged to write words of encouragement to a child who was gravely ill. In a control condition, participants merely counted the number of es in an article. After five minutes, participants then completed a questionnaire that assesses future time perspective, with questions like "My future seems infinite to me". After helping a sick child, rather than wasting time, participants felt their time seemed abundant.

In the second study, participants were encouraged to spend either 10 or 30 minutes "doing something to for yourself" or "doing something to help someone else". At the end of that day, they completed the questionnaire that gauged whether the time seemed abundant in the future. Again, after helping other people, instead of themselves, participants were more inclined to feel that time is abundant.

In another study, participants either helped another student with an essay or were informed they could leave the experiment early. Just before leaving, all participants rated the extent to which they felt that time was scarce now as well as the degree to which they felt time was available. Compared to participants who left the study early, participants who helped another student were more likely to feel that time was available rather than scarce.

The final study explored the mechanisms that underpin this effect. That is, participants reflected upon a time in which they helped someone else or themselves. Next, they completed a questionnaire that gauges the degree to which they feel they are granted plenty of spare time. Finally, they were asked to indicate the extent to which this time in which they helped someone else or themselves promoted feelings of self-efficacy, connectedness with other people, meaning, and enjoyment. Only self-efficacy mediated the relationship between helping someone else and the perceived abundance of time.


The socioemotional selectivity theory presents several key implications. First, this theory highlights some of the psychological benefits that ensue, such as the capacity to regulate emotions effective, as individuals become increasingly frail (Charles & Carstensen, 2004). This realization is profound, because older individuals are often granted limited respect and appreciation, partly as a consequence of declining cognitive abilities, especially in memory, attention, mental imagery, reasoning, and problem solving. Nevertheless, because emotional processing is perhaps more advanced in older individuals, related systems, such as intuitive operations, might also be either intact if not superior.

Indeed, socioemotional selectivity theory implies that cognitive processes, at least in particular contexts, might also be intact in many older individuals. For example, because of their focus on events that are significant from an emotional perspective, memory of affective stimuli might be relatively intact. Consistent with this possibility, the capacity to remember the source of some statement is usually impaired in older individuals. When these individuals, however, received questions about some of the emotional facets of these sources, this impairment diminished. However, when these individuals received questions about the gender of these sources, the impairment was preserved (Rahhal, May, & Hasher, 2002).

More specifically, because of their inclination to focus on positive cues, memory for objects that comprise many positive rather than negative features is especially intact in older individuals (Charles, Mather, & Carstensen, 2003). Indeed, Mather, Canli, English, Whitfield, Wais, Ochsner, Gabrieli, and Carstensen (2004) showed that activation of the amygdala was more pronounced in older, relative to younger, individuals when the stimuli comprised many positive features (see also Mikels, Larkin, Reuter-Lorenz, & Carstensen, 2005, for similar findings in the context of working memory).

Indeed, direction of attention also varies with age. Older individuals are more inclined to direct their attention to positive stimuli. That is, they recognized targets more rapidly than appeared at locations in which positive, rather than negative, stimuli had appeared immediately beforehand (Mather & Carstensen, 2003).

This theory also offers insight into persuasion. Sometimes, for example, managers need to convince employees that an impending change or initiative will be beneficial and suitable. In these instances, managers should ask these employees to reflect upon a recent transition in their lives. To demonstrate, the managers might refer to some advice they received the day before their wedding, such as "When I was nervous before my wedding, Frank always encouraged me to imagine my retirement". The manager could then ask employees "How did you feel before your wedding", before connecting this discussion to the initiative they plan to implement.

Variety seeking and age

According to socioemotional selectivity theory, younger employees should be more motivated than older employees to accumulate skills than to experience pleasure at work. Consequently, younger employees should be inspired to complete a broad array of tasks. This variety of tasks should facilitate their capacity to develop skills. In contrast, older employees have already developed an array of skills. They will enjoy jobs that enable people to use this variety of skills, because such opportunities should promote positive emotions.

This possibility was proposed and confirmed by Zaniboni, Truxillo, and Fraccaroli (2013). In one study, participants of various ages completed scales that assess the degree to which they complete a variety of tasks at work, the extent to which their job demands a variety of skills, and the level of burnout they experience at work. In younger employees, task variety was inversely related to burnout. In older employees, skill variety was inversely related to burnout. A subsequent study replicated these findings, except burnout was supplanted by intention to quit.

Complications to socioemotional selectivity theory

The tension between happiness and social connections

According to socioemotional selectivity theory, when people feel their temporal horizon is limited, they strive to optimize their emotions and social relationships. Yet, as Mauss, Savino, Anderson, Weisbuch, and Laudenslager (2012) showed, when individuals deliberately pursue and seek happiness, their social relationships are not as likely to be strong. They are actually more likely to be lonely.

For example, in one study, participants were asked to indicate the extent to which they value happiness. For example, they indicated the degree to which they agree or disagree with statements like "Feeling happy is extremely important to me". Then, over the next two weeks, individuals maintained a diary. They recorded the most stressful event of each day as well as the degree to which they felt lonely during this event. After controlling social desirability biases, participants who were most inclined to value happiness were more likely to experience loneliness.

The second study was designed to overcome problems with the first study. Specifically, some participants read an article that extolled the benefits of happiness, maintaining this emotion fostered strong relationships. In the control condition, participants the same article, except the word happiness was replaced with accurate judgment. Next, participants watched a movie that primed motivations to establish friendships. Finally, participants completed measures that gauge their emotions, including feelings of loneliness, as well as measures of progesterone and cortisol. If people were primed to value happiness, they were more likely to report loneliness, even after controlling other emotions. They also exhibited lower levels of progesterone, after controlling cortisol levels. Progesterone levels are negatively associated with feelings of loneliness.

Arguably, if people value happiness, they may become too concerned with their own needs. They are not, therefore, as attuned to the needs of other people, potentially impeding social relationships and culminating in loneliness.

Other research also implies that people who prioritize happiness and pleasure over other objectives, such as learning and mastery, may experience a decline in wellbeing. For example, as Ford, Mauss, and Gruber (2015) showed, if individuals believe that happiness is vital to their life, they are more susceptible to bipolar disorder. Arguably, because they attach great value to happiness, they might overreact to events that elicit or inhibit happiness.


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Last Update: 6/27/2016