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Socioemotional selectivity theory

Author: 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 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).

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.


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.


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Last Update: 6/28/2016