Socioemotional Selectivity Theory: Explained with Examples

Socioemotional Selectivity Theory developed by Laura Carstensen, professor of psychology at Stanford University. The theory shows the socio-emotional impact of perceived future life span on human goals and motivations. The theory is important in the field because there has been a lot of research on the psyche of toddlers, children, teenagers and young adults but rarely are the needs of the older generation in terms of socio-emotional requirements catered to in the field of psychology.

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The theory develops out of the uniquely human ability to perceive time. It states that all humans during all stages of their lives have certain motivations and goals in terms of their instrumental and emotional needs which they prioritize differently at different stages. This prioritization depends not on the amount of time spent (i.e. chronological age) but the amount of time the human perceives s/he has left to live. When the individuals believe that there is a long and nebulous life ahead i.e. in the youth, they choose to prioritize instrumental goals such as expanding their horizon, knowledge acquisition, travelling, achieving difficult targets over emotional gratification. Older people tend to prioritize their emotional needs, stay happy, spend time with their loved ones, etc. Life decisions are generally perceived to be dependent on how old a person is i.e. chronological age which results in older people saying things like, “You are young right now which is why you take risky decisions. Over time you will gain more experience and not take too many risky decisions”. This theory explains that these decisions are not a result of individuals being young and inexperienced. Rather they see a long life ahead of them so they chose to take difficult decisions because they have the time to handle the consequences and reap the benefits in the end. Older people might not have that time. While this theory is mostly used to study the motivations and goals at different ages, these motivations might change (irrespective of age) if the perceived future time span is shortened or lengthened. For example, if a person were to suffer from a terminal illness at a young age, their perceived future life span is shortened and they choose to prioritize emotional gratification. Similarly, a person in their 60s living in a country that has a longer life expectancy might have goals similar to the youth. Various investigations and studies have been carried out to prove Socioemotional Selectivity Theory and all of them had a positive outcome. The studies that verified Socioemotional Selectivity Theory include Frederickson and Carstensen, 1990; Fung et al, 1999; Fung and Carstensen, 2004.

Positivity Effect is an outcome of the Socioemotional Selectivity Theory which states that an increase in age is positively correlated with processing more positive information. A research conducted by Carstensen and colleagues with people between the age group 18- 94 showed while there was no change in the number of positive emotions, the likelihood of experiencing negative emotions decrease with age. Another research by Charles, Mather and Carstensen showed various positive and negative images to youth, middle aged and old people. While younger people tend to remember the negative images more, older people recall more positive images. All these researches reinforce the Positivity Effect. Various reasons have been given to explain this effect, the first being that there is cognitive decline over time. However positive stimulus is less cognitively demanding thus easier to process even in old age. Another reason is that it has been psychologically proven that there is a top down approach of goals on information processing that is cognitive functions are more likely to process information that aligns with an individual’s goal. It is like a psychological version of the quote, “you see what you want to see”. As goals change from instrumental to emotional needs, attention and memory diverted towards achieving emotional gratification. While many theories still come up to explain the effects of Socioemotional Selectivity Theory, it has been instrumental in showing one of the positive sides of aging. However positive effect also has negative side effects. It may lead people to avoid seeking information about health issues as they seek to maximize positive emotions and avoid negative ones. A thorough analysis of the theory allows us to cater better to the socio-emotional demands of the aging and the elderly.


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Astha is an opinionated Gen Z and a dedicated bibliophile who is currently pursuing Political Science and Economics at Miranda House. She is an ambivert and finds discussions on politics and international affairs to be her favorite icebreakers. She is a proud feminist.